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Works John Opie

Portrait of Thomas Girtin

1800 - 1805

Primary Image: TG1924: John Opie (1761–1807), Portrait of Thomas Girtin, 1800–05, oil on canvas, 76.2 × 63.5 cm, 30 × 25 in. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 882).

Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London (All Rights Reserved)

Description
Creator(s)
John Opie (1761-1807)
Title
  • Portrait of Thomas Girtin
Date
1800 - 1805
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
76.2 × 63.5 cm, 30 × 25 in
Object Type
Oil painting
Subject Terms
Portrait of Thomas Girtin

Collection
Versions
Portrait of Thomas Girtin (TG1929)
Portrait of Thomas Girtin (TG1931)
Catalogue Number
TG1924
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2016

Provenance

William Cox; his sale, Robinson & Fisher, 14 March 1883, lot 153, as ‘Portrait of Girtin, the father of the Water Color School’, unsold; his sale, possibly Christie's, 8 February 1884, lot 618; 'Colnaghi', £3 13s 6d; H. Fawcett; bought from him by the Gallery, 1891

Exhibition History

Cox’s Gallery, 1878; Cambridge, 1989, no.28; Harewood, 1999, no.2

Bibliography

Earland, 1911, p.278; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, p.219; Girtin, 1962, p.131; Walker, 1985, vol.1, p.248; Holmes and others, 2002, p.69; Breen, Townsend and Warrell, 2020, pp.86–88

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. None of Opie’s portraits of Girtin, perhaps numbering as many as five (including TG1929 and TG1931), are dated, and it is therefore possible that all or most of them were commissioned after the artist’s death as a memorial. The colour scientist George Field (1777–1854) is known to have owned a portrait of Girtin by Opie, as it is listed in his posthumous sale. Though it is not possible to confirm the fact, this version is the most credible candidate to have been commissioned by him (Exhibitions: Foster’s, 25 July 1855, lot 139). Field’s collection centred on contemporary British art, and he championed Girtin as the ‘eminent’ heir to Richard Wilson (1713/14–82), adding that the artist was ‘my early acquaintance’ (quoted in Wright, 1824, p.78). 

Self-Portrait

If Opie’s portrait was painted posthumously for Field, it certainly 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). This image of the artist is confirmed by Field himself, who described Girtin as ‘generous and giddy’ (quoted in Wright, 1824, p.78). In spite of all of 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. All of which makes a fascinating contrast with the self-portrait painted by Girtin's early teacher, Edward Dayes (1763–1804) (see figure 1). Dayes, who was so critical of Girtin's carefree approach to his life and art, accusing him of having 'trifled away a vigorous constitution', depicts himself in an austere and self-absorbed state which is ironically more in keeping with the image of the romantic artist so anathema to Dayes's teachings (Dayes, Works, p.329).1

Another version of this composition, with the same measurements, 29 ½ × 24 ½  in (74.9 × 62.2  cm), is recorded in the sale records of J. Palser & Sons as appearing in an untraced sale in 1911 (21 July 1911, lot 136) (Palser Records). A note on the back records that it came from the collection of ‘Earl Northwick’.

1800 - 1801

Sketch of Thomas Girtin’s Head

TG1930

(?) 1801

Thomas Girtin Sketching

TG1923

1800 - 1805

Portrait of Thomas Girtin

TG1929

1800 - 1805

Portrait of Thomas Girtin

TG1931

by Greg Smith

Footnotes

  1. 1 Dayes’ Professional Sketches of Modern Artists was published posthumously in 1805 in The Works of the Late Edward Dayes edited by Edward Wedlake Brayley. The sharply critical biography of ‘GIRTIN THOMAS. – LANDSCAPE’ is transcribed in full in the Documents section of the Archive (1805 – Item 1).

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