Century Magazine/Volume 57/Issue 4/Cole's Old English Masters. John Opie
COLE'S OLD ENGLISH MASTERS
JOHN OPIE (1761–1807). SEE FRONTISPIECE.
BY JOHN C. VAN DYKE.
IN Sir Joshua's day fashionable London was subject to all sorts of crazes. Some new comet shot across the sky each week. The "beautiful Misses Gunning," who were so successfully married, were not more of a furor than the beautiful Misses Jefferies and Blandy, who were so successfully hanged. Parsees and Brahmans came from the East, and Cherokees from the West, to say nothing of celebrities from the Continent, all to have their little day at Almack's with poets, painters, opera-singers, and other people suddenly become famous. Of course all the English provinces sent prodigies of wit or beauty to the metropolis, and even far-off Cornwall sent a boy painter. John Opie was his name. He was called "The Cornish Wonder," and he lasted for more than nine days.
Opie was born at St. Agnes, near Truro, and was the son of a carpenter. He preferred picture-making to carpentry, and was soon painting country folk at half a guinea a head. Dr. Wolcott ("Peter Pindar") discovered him at fifteen, and helped him with both money and advice. In 1779 Opie and Wolcott went to Falmouth to improve their joint prospects, and the year after they went up to London. It was agreed that they should share fortune alike, Opie to work with his brush and Wolcott to point out his wonderfulness with pen and tongue; but after a year, to quote Wolcott, "my pupil told me I could return to the country, as he could now do for himself." In the meantime Wolcott had pushed the Wonder into notice. Reynolds had commended his work and declared it like Caravaggio and Velasquez in one; he had been introduced at court and given commissions by the king, and a mob of fashionables had gone daft over his heads of beggars. The rage was violent while it lasted. Its subsidence was violent, too, but it did not leave Opie totally neglected. Some friends stood by him, he was a faithful worker, and he went on painting portraits with unabated energy. All his life he was a student, and in the end he became a painter of force and considerable invention. He was elected a Royal Academician, and in 1805 he was the Academy's professor of painting, delivering several rather remarkable discourses after the Reynolds initiative. He was married twice, the second Mrs. Opie being the novelist over whose productions our grandmothers shed some intermittent tears in the years past.
Opie seems to have been self-taught, and no one knows how he took his bent toward broad masses of light and shade and rather coarse handling. It is easy to say that he was influenced by Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but there is no record that he knew anything about either of these painters. Indeed, it is more reasonable to assume that his hand was rather coarse by nature, and that he painted in broad masses because he had neither the delicacy nor the skill to paint otherwise. He never at any time approximated a worker in cloisonné. His line was heavy, with little grace about it, his contours were square-turned, his light was wanting in subtlety, and his surfaces were rough and "painty." Yet perhaps these very defects made up his redeeming feature—strength. The simplicity of the means gave the feeling of rugged power. Its resemblance to the strength of Velasquez, however, was entirely superficial. Opie was only a tyro with the brush where Velasquez was a passed master. His art gathered force from his artlessness, and some of his boldest effects were the result of his untutored simplicity.
Opie's success, however, is not to be belittled. He did no more with the historical canvas than his contemporaries, but among the five hundred portraits that he painted there are some of remarkable vigor. The portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft (wife of William Godwin and mother of the second Mrs. Shelley), which Mr. Cole has engraved, is one of the best known of his works, and is a striking study in character. The reverie in which the subject seems steeped is well given, though the workmanship is not more delicate than Opie's rather coarse average.