Portrait of John Opie, R.A., c. 1790s
Prince Hoare (September 1755 - 1834)
RA Collection: Art
'Speak, Muse, who form'd that matchless head,
The Cornish boy, in tin-mines bred;
Whose native genius, like his diamonds, shone
In secret, till chance gave him to the sun?'
(Peter Pindar, 1782)
This poem extols the virtues of the painter John Opie (1761-1807) who was born near Truro in Cornwall, the son of a mine carpenter. It was written by John Wolcot (pen name Peter Pindar), a doctor and amateur artist, who claimed to have 'discovered' Opie and who promoted him as a self-taught artistic genius. During the 1780s Opie began to exhibit his portraits in London, where he caused a sensation and was nicknamed 'the Cornish Wonder'. His fame was boosted by the belief that he had received no training and had 'never seen a picture' but he had, in fact, been coached by Wolcot.
Opie was probably in his thirties when he sat for this pastel portrait by his friend, the artist and writer Prince Hoare (1755-1834). His youthful appearance may owe something to Wolcot who cultivated the idea that his protégé was an unrefined rustic, in order to emphasise his sophistication as a painter. However, the persona Wolcot had constructed for the young artist elicited a mixed response. Sir Joshua Reynolds immediately warmed to Opie - declaring his paintings 'like Caravaggio, but finer' - but others were initially put off by his unkempt appearance. After meeting Opie in 1789, Sir Martin Archer Shee described him as 'in manners and appearance, as great a clown and as stupid a looking fellow as ever I set my eyes on'. Hoare's simple portrait offers a more sympathetic view, showing the sitter wearing a respectable dark jacket with a white neck tie. Opie's direct gaze, ruffled hair and plain clothing suggest a self-assured but unpretentious character.
Opie later turned to painting ambitious historical and literary subjects with great success and became a Royal Academician in 1787. He served as Professor of Painting at the Academy from 1805, delivering a series of lectures before his death in 1807. The artist of this portait, Prince Hoare, was present at his deathbed and later edited and published Opie's writings on art.
470 mm x 320 mm
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