With Oriel Gallery, Dublin, July 1979;
Whence purchased by William and Joan Roth, USA;
Adam's, 29 September 2004, lot 139 as ‘Reclining Male Nude’;
It may well be that the origins of the present work date from this period, and the figure element, executed in pencil, could indeed have been one of a number of studies for that work, as Orpen attempted to resolve the pose for the corpse. Konody’s comments hold true for many of the artists following in the neo-classical and historic traditions. Orpen, in his rapacious thirst for art history and tradition would not only be able to draw on the religious paintings of Ribera and trace them through to works such as Thèodule Ribot’s Le Samaritain (1870) (Musèe d’Orsay, Paris), but also would combine them with other traditions such as the Irish Romantics, characterised by such works as James Barry’s Death of Adonis (c.1775) (National Gallery of Ireland), or Francis Danby’s The Precipice aka Death of an Alpine Hunter (c.1827) (City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery), or Harry Jones Thaddeus’s The Wounded Poacher (1880-1881) (National Gallery of Ireland) or with the Scottish Historical tradition, such as David Scott’s Philoctetes left in the Isle of Lemnos by the Greeks, in their Passage towards Troy (1840) (National Galleries of Scotland) (See footnote no. 2)
As the artist’s style developed and matured, and the vista of his genre works opened out from those interiors, so characteristic of the turn-of-the century New English Art Club, to the broader canvases and challeges of the open air, the dominance given to line, increasingly gave way to colour and form, a development no doubt feulled by the awe-inspiring, ever-changing skies over Dublin Bay, which Orpen regularly painted as he holidayed in Howth between 1909 and 1914 (see footnote no. 3), and later by the strange and eerie beauty of the sun-baked battlefields of the Western Front (see footnote no. 4), and onimous billowing clouds over Paris (see footnote no. 5).
Orpen exulted the incongruity of the strong yet suble, sometime contrasting, sometime harmonious, colours, that nature created in its landscapes, seascapes and cloudscapes, and in consequence his pallette developed to accommodate them. Throughout the 1920s Orpen subjugated his own freedom to explore through genre painting to concentrate on his portrait business. However, in the last few months of his life, he branched out from commissioned portraiture to produce a series of works, often unfinished, seemingly very different from anything else he produced before. Orpen’s health was failing rapidly at that time, and he must have been aware that his time was short, but he was determined to work to the very end. He still had things to say, things he had put off for a decade, things emanating from a new conciousness arising from his changing medical condition. Consequently the pictures, forged by a new urgency, do not have the finesse of previous works, but they do contain passion, vision, commitment and unity of expression. Evidently they must have meant a great deal to the artist for he submitted three of the more major pictures, Palm Sunday A.D.33 (1931) (Private Collection), Eve in the Garden of Eden (1931) (Royal Academy, London) and Pavlova on a Beach (1931) (Mildura Arts Centre, Australia), to public scrutiny at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1931.
Consisting of two intertwining strands these last works are set in an indeterminate location comprising earth, sea and sky, that may be an idealised reference to Howth and Dublin Bay, the character of which can change from idyllic sunshine to stormy turmoil in the blink of an eye. It is this duality that is reflected, with the female form representing serenity and the male form turmoil. When we gaze upon these works we are experiencing Orpen’s visualisation of the Agony and the Ecstasy, yet still the romantic is corralled by realism, as he did three decades before with The Rebel. Only now with the balance tipped in favour of the romantic. Realism was achieved by the preservation of line, and as his faculties deteriorated, the ingenious artist resorted to various subterfuges to compensate. Among these would be the use of photographs, tracing, or using old academic pencil studies of the nude and adding a background based upon colour and form, which did not require the same precision in its handling. The current work falls into this category, the figure itself could possibly be a trace of , or an earlier study. (See footnote no 6)
The quality of the works suggest Orpen was trying to aspire to some supernatural vision, as if he was looking through his own approaching death to the after-life. All the pictures possess a mystical or spiritual quality, and a number of them have a religious theme or title. Religion had taken on a greater significance in these last years. He had become friendly with a Roman Catholic priest and had installed his own little Chapel in his revamped studio completed in 1929. One could imagine, the recumbent figure representing Orpen himself, a tortured soul, as he comtemplates the haunting images of Ribera’s Christ and martyrs which had been etched in his memory all those years before. As his dexterity wanes, colour becomes increasing more important to express his feelings, and these pictures of the male nude are far darker in colour and tone than the more serene ones involving the female form. The stillness of those pictures is replaced with a disturbing sky, full of movement and menace, where even the seagulls are agitated. There is no peace here. This is more akin to purgatory than to heaven, and the man’s implied suffering may well be a manifestation of Orpen’s guilt and loathing at certain aspects of his life as he prepares to meet his Maker. Is he in purgatory, naked before God, racked by pain both mental and physical, atoning for his sins in a neverland? Taking the current work as an example, just as with Van Gogh, or Dadd, whatever governed Orpen’s thoughts in the last months, he still was able to produce powerful and challenging works, focuses for meditation, that have the ability to cause a stir, divide opinion, court controversy, shock and bewilder. As such this oft dismissed small but significant part of his ouvre should not be rejected or ignored. Instead it must be embraced, for it represents the closing bracket around the artistic life of a great painter.
1. For a more detailed assessment of these works, especially The Rebel, refer to P.G. Konody’s comments in P.G. Konody and Sidney Dark, Sir William Orpen, Artist and Man, Seeley Service, London, 1932, p.158.
2 This pose adopted for the current work, or variants, can be seen in many works of neo classical, historic and romantic painters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Further examples include William Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan, c.1805-9 (Tate Gallery, London) and David Scott’s, Russians Burying their Dead, 1831-2 (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow). Perhaps of greatest interest, however, is the latters’ 1840 rendition of Philoctetes left in the Isle of Lemnos by the Greeks, in their Passage towards Troy, which seems to have been inspired by William Wordsworth’s 1827 Sonnet, When Philoctetes in the Lemnian Isle, rather than directly from the Greek legend:
WHEN Philoctetes in the Lemnian isle
Like a form sculptured on a monument
Lay couched; on him or his dread bow unbent
Some wild bird oft might settle and beguile
The rigid features of a transient smile,
Disperse the tear, or to the sigh give vent,
Slackening the pains of ruthless banishment
From his loved home, and from heroic toil.
And trust that spiritual Creatures round us move,
Griefs to allay which Reason cannot heal;
Yea, veriest reptiles have sufficed to prove
To fettered wretchedness, that no Bastile
Is deep enough to exclude the light of love,
Though man for brother man has ceased to feel.
Although viewed from a different angle, Philocetetes’ pose closely resembles the pose of the nude in the subject work. This along with the nature and placement of the accoutrements, the bow and quiver of arrows for Scott and the hat and firearn for Orpen, coupled with the similarity in the beards suggest that this may have been one of Orpen’s references when undertaking The Rebel. Scott’s painting had been acquired by the National Gallery of Scoland in 1890. It is also not inconceivable that Orpen knew that Scott’s source was Wordsworth, and that he was also conversant with the sonnet. However, whereas in The Rebel, he was using elements of Scott’s picture for a composition in relation to a different subject, with regard to the present work, the added elements surrounding the central figure, together with colour and tone of the torso suggest a direct connection with the sonnet on the one hand and a link to Scott’s work on the other. It may well be that the sentiments expressed by Wordsworth found a resonance with Orpen in his twilight days.
3 Examples include: A Breezy Day, Howth (1912) (Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin) Bringing In the Boat (c.1912) (Private Collection), and Dublin Bay From Howth Head (c.1912) (Private Collection). For further discussion see Orpen Research Project, Christie’s Irish Sale, 19 May 2000 Catalogue, Lot.184. pp.162-3, Christie’s, London, 2000.
4 Examples include: The Main Street, Combles (1917) (Imperial War Museum, London) and Harvest, 1918 (Imperial War Museum, London)
5 Clouds Over Montmartre (c.1919) (Private Collection). For further discussion see Orpen Research Project, Sotheby’s Irish Sale, 13 May 2004 Catalogue, , Lot.34. p.55., Sotheby’s, London, 2004.
6 Other works to be considered: Based on the male nude - Male Nude Study (Private Collection); On the Edge of the Cliff (Private Collection); and Nude, Male Lying on a Rock [No.1] (Private Collection), and based on the Female form - Mother and Child on a Beach (Royal Academy, London); Nude Female Model Reading on a Seashore (Royal Academy, London) ; and Nude, Female, Back - Looking to Sea (Private Collection).
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