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Works John Opie

Portrait of Thomas Girtin

1800 - 1805

Primary Image: TG1929: John Opie (1761–1807), Portrait of Thomas Girtin, 1800–05, oil on canvas, 77 × 64 cm, 30 ¼ × 25 ¼ in. The Whitworth, The University of Manchester (O.1997.2).

Photo courtesy of The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Photo by Michael Pollard (All Rights Reserved)

Print after: Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835), after John Opie (1761–1807), mezzotint, 'Portrait of the late extraordinary Artist, Thomas Girtin', 16 May 1817, 37.9 × 25.9 cm, 14 ¹⁵⁄₁₆ × 10 ³⁄₁₆ in. British Museum, London (1877,0210.181).

Photo courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

John Opie (1761-1807)
  • Portrait of Thomas Girtin
1800 - 1805
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas
77 × 64 cm, 30 ¼ × 25 ¼ in
Object Type
Oil painting
Subject Terms
Portrait of Thomas Girtin

Portrait of Thomas Girtin (TG1924)
Portrait of Thomas Girtin (TG1931)
Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and February 2020


Mary Ann Girtin (née Borrett) (1781–1843); then by descent to Thomas Girtin (1874–1960); given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bequeathed to the Gallery, 1997

Exhibition History

London, 1875, no number; London, 1891b, no.286; London, 1906, no.291; London, 1933, no.44; London, 1962a, no.138; London, 2002, no.204


Thornbury, 1862, p.117; Sparrow, 1902, p.81; 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, perhaps made for Girtin’s family, with whom it remained for almost two hundred years. The work is not dated, and it is therefore possible that it was commissioned after the artist’s death as a memorial. The other versions of the composition, perhaps numbering as many as five in all (including TG1924 and TG1931), fall into another category again. Some were presumably made after the artist’s death and were probably ordered from Opie by Girtin’s patrons. They were therefore part of the process by which the artist’s posthumous reputation was established, a role that was also performed by this work when it was reproduction in mezzotint by Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835). This was published by the artist’s brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), in 1817 as a ‘Portrait of the late extraordinary Artist, Thomas Girtin’ (see the print after, above), and this was the image by which Girtin was known throughout the nineteenth century until the acquisition of another version of this composition by the National Portrait Gallery in 1891 (TG1924). 

An Unfinished Portrait of a Man, Possibly Showing Thomas Girtin (x-radiograph of Mountain Scene with Castle, Probably Martigny)

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 either a sketchbook or a palette. In this context, Girtin’s intense gaze signifies an artist blessed with a superior imagination whose labour is intellectual rather than manual. 

Something of this quality has been perceived in the face of a man found under an oil painting of an unidentified castle amongst mountains by Girtin’s contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) (see figure 1). Revealed by x-radiography, the ghostly image of the lost portrait, evidently not completed, has been tentatively identified as depicting Girtin (Breen, Townsend and Warrell, 2020, pp.86–88). The thought that Turner portrayed his friend, perhaps even as a memorial following his death in November 1802, is an attractive idea not least as Turner's early biographer Walter Thornbury recorded that he had 'painted his friend Girtin’s portrait in oil' (Thornbury, 1862, vol.1, p.28, p.117). Nonethless, the visual evidence to my eye is not ultimately conclusive.


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 of Thomas Girtin


by Greg Smith

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