Double portrait in oils of an older man and woman seated at a small table in an interior, with a convex mirror hanging above them on the wall reflecting the artist at work..
William Orpen (1878-1931), Portrait of the Artist's Parents. Image © National Gallery of IrelandCredit

Portrait of the Artist's Parents

A learning resource for young people entering the Zurich Young Portrait Prize.

Who is the artist?
William Orpen
Where is the artist from?
He was born in Ireland.
When was the artist alive?
He was born in 1878 and died in 1931.
When was this portrait made?
We do not know the date he painted this work. 
What is this portrait made of?  
Oil on canvas
What size is it?
169 x 138 cm

Who are the sitters?
The artist's parents Arthur Herbert Orpen (1830–1926) and Anne Orpen (née Caulfield) (d.1912).

How was the portrait made?
This painting was made using oil paints. These paints take a long time to dry so they are often mixed with other substances such as white spirits which thin them out a little so the artist can work more quickly. This portrait is painted on canvas which is a great surface for oil paints. It is often primed with a white material, such as gesso, which gives the surface a lovely paper-like quality. Artists sometimes make their own canvases. First they make a simple wooden frame, then they stretch a piece of canvas material over the frame, securing it with nails or a staple gun.

Why did the artist make this portrait?
William Orpen made portraits of people in his life. This is a portrait of his parents who would have been significant and important to him.

Look closely

Take a look at this list of words:

table 
flowers 
moustache 
curtains
jacket
bonnet
carpet 
tie 
hat 
mirror
coat

Now look at the portrait. Can you see these parts of the picture? Can you see anything else?

Look again!

Take a look at this list of words:

happy 
serious
relaxed 
proud
content 
bored
excited
wealthy 

Now look at the picture again. Do any of these words describe the sitters? How would you describe them? Take out a notepad and jot down in your own words how you make this portrait.

Get creative!

Now think of other ways the artist could have made this portrait. 

  • Could it be a sculpture? A collage? A photograph? 
  • Could they be standing instead of sitting? Could they be outdoors instead of indoors? 
  • Could other objects be included in this portrait? What do you think they would be?

Try sketching another version of this portrait in a notebook or a spare sheet of paper.