William Orpen: Politics, Sex & Death

William Orpen: Politics, Sex & Death

William Orpen: Politics, Sex & Death
1st June – 28th August 2005

The most comprehensive retrospective exhibition of the works of William Orpen (1878-1931) was organised in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum in London, and curated by Robert Upstone, Senior Curator of Tate Britain. It included 70 oil paintings drawn from public and private collections in Ireland, Great Britain, France, the USA and Australia.

The last major retrospective exhibition of Orpen's works was held at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin in 1978. That show and the publication of the biography of William Orpen by Bruce Arnold saw the beginnings of a revival of an interest in the artist's work.

In curating the show Robert Upstone brought together the different strands of Orpen's paintings and drawings under three broad categories-politics, sex and death. The exhibition reappraised his career and showed the full variety of his work; his revitalisation of the nude, his spectacular career as the leading social portrait painter of his day to his brutally realistic depictions of the horrors of war as he experienced it as an official war artist in France during the Great War.

Upstone noted that Orpen, though born in Ireland, spent much of his life in England, first as a student and then as one of London's fashionable portraitists and went on to become one of the most successful painters of Edwardian England. He earned extraordinary sums of money and was knighted for his services as a war artist.

In his catalogue essay, 'Orpen and the new Ireland', Roy Foster wrote on the artist's ambiguous relationship to a changing Ireland of literary and artistic revival. He said: "Orpen's jaunty, mock-deprecatory style was at odds with the high tone adopted by the revival architects."Towards cultural nationalists in the Yeats circle Orpen's attitude was distinctly cool. Yeats was a constant butt in his memoirs and letters. In his memoirs, Stories of old Ireland, he shows a strong association with the writings of Synge. He was a close friend of Michael Davitt and his assistant in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin was Sean Keating.

William Orpen: Politics, Sex & Death
Text © The Imperial War Museum 2005
Editor Robert Upstone with contributions by Professor Roy F. Foster and David Fraser Jenkins
ISBN 1 904 897 215