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Works John Opie

Portrait of Thomas Girtin

1800 - 1805

Primary Image: TG1931: John Opie (1761–1807), Portrait of Thomas Girtin, 1800–05, oil on canvas, 75 × 63 cm, 29 ½ × 24 ¾ in. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (WA1934.418).

Photo courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (All Rights Reserved)

Print after: Edward Scriven (1775–1841), after John Opie (1761–1807), stipple engraving, 'T Girtin' for The Library of Fine Arts, 1832, 8.9 × 7 cm, 3 ½ × 2 ¾ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1977.14.12320).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

John Opie (1761-1807)
  • Portrait of Thomas Girtin
1800 - 1805
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas
75 × 63 cm, 29 ½ × 24 ¾ in
Object Type
Oil painting
Subject Terms
Portrait of Thomas Girtin

Portrait of Thomas Girtin (TG1924)
Portrait of Thomas Girtin (TG1929)
Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74); then by descent to George Wyndham Hog Girtin (1835–1911); then by a settlement to his sister Mary Hog Barnard (née Girtin) (1828–99); then by descent to Francis Pierrepont Barnard (1854–1931); his widow, Isabella Barnard; bequeathed to the Museum, 1934


Earland, 1911, p.278; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.219; Walker, 1985, vol.1, p.248

About this Work

The portrait of one artist by another performed a wide range of functions at this time. Many were produced from motives of friendship and professional solidarity, and the oil sketch by John Opie (1761–1807) on which this work is based (TG1930) may fit into this category, as does the drawing by Henry Edridge (1768–1821) that shows Girtin sketching (TG1923). This larger finished oil is a more formal commissioned piece, however, presumably made for one of Girtin’s patrons, though it ended up in the possession of the artist’s son, Thomas Calvert Girtin (1801–74), who appears to have owned two versions of the portrait (the other being TG1929). None of Opie’s portraits of Girtin, perhaps numbering as many as five (including TG1924 and TG1927), are dated, and it is therefore possible that all or at least most of them were commissioned after the artist’s death as memorials. They were therefore part of the process by which the artist’s posthumous reputation was established, a role that was also performed by the prints that appeared (see the print after, above). A stipple engraving by Edward Scriven (1775–1841) was used as an illustration for the important biographical essay by William Henry Pyne (1770–1843) titled ‘Recollections of the Late Thomas Girtin’ that appeared in the Library of the Fine Arts in 1832 (Pyne, 1832a).1

If Opie’s portrait was painted posthumously, it offers no hint of impending mortality; indeed, the slightly open mouth suggests that the artist is engaged in conversation even as he works. Early biographical accounts of the artist stress his sociable nature and how his painting room ‘was the resort of many persons of distinction in society’ and a place where, ‘surrounded by callers, the artist would go on with his work, chatting and telling anecdotes at the same time; liberal, as on all occasions, of his knowledge of art’ (Roget, 1891, pp.109–10). In spite of all this, the painting conforms to the notion of the Romantic artist in one respect. Opie thus concentrated exclusively on the artist’s face, and the tools of his trade are reduced to two ambiguous slashes of paint, one of which represents a porte crayon and the other possibly a sketchbook. In this context, Girtin’s intense look signifies an artist blessed with a superior imagination whose labour is intellectual rather than manual. 

Portrait of Thomas Girtin

Another version of the portrait, in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, has been described by Richard Walker as a copy of Opie’s work by an unknown artist (see figure 1) (Walker, 1985, vol.1, p.248). Still more versions of the composition have been recorded at various sales, and no doubt others will reappear in due course.

1800 - 1801

Sketch of Thomas Girtin’s Head


(?) 1801

Thomas Girtin Sketching


1800 - 1805

Portrait of Thomas Girtin


1800 - 1805

Portrait of Thomas Girtin


1800 - 1805

Portrait Head of Thomas Girtin


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 The ‘Recollections’ were written by a fellow artist who observed Girtin at work in his studio. They are transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1832 – Item 1).

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