Opie, John

, a very excellent artist and professor of painting in the Royal Academy, was born in May 1761, at St. Agnes in Cornwall, a village about seven miles distant from the town of Truro. In his earliest years he was remarkable for the strength of his understanding, and the rapidity with which he acquired all the learning that a village-school could afford him. When ten years old, he was not only able to solve several difficult problems in Euclid, but was thought capable of instructing others: and when he had scarcely reached his twelfth year, he established an evening school at St. Agnes, and taught writing and arithmetic. His father, a carpenter, was desirous to bring him up in his own business; but this was by no means suitable to one whose mind had attained some glimpses of science, and still more of art. He was formed a painter by nature; and had not this been the case, he would probably have excelled in some branch of science or literature: with much comprehension and acuteness, his thirst of information was insatiable, and his ambition to excel, unbounded. But painting was his destination, and after many early and rude efforts, he had hung his father’s house with portraits of his family and friends in an improved style, when he became acquainted with Dr. John Wolcot, then residing at Truro, and since so well known by the name of Peter Pindar: who, having himself a taste for drawing, and a strong perception of character, saw the worth of our artist, and was well qualified to afford him instruction in many requisite points. He also recommended | him so effectually that he commenced professed portrait" painter, and went about to the neighbouring towns with letters of introduction to the principal families resident in them, and henceforward entirely supported himself by his own exertions.

At length, in 1781, he came to London, still under the auspicies of Dr. Wolco’t, whose powerful pen was not silent in his cause; and his works becoming the theme of fashionable conversation, he was soon employed to paint the portraits of persons of the highest distinction, who were caught by the novelty, and struck with the force of his representations. His talent, however, being more solid than showy, was not calculated to insure him long that exclusive favour which his outset had promised: without taste for elegance and fashionable airs, he could not often please the women; and the men, whom he could not supply with dignity or importance, soon became indifferent to one whom the women did no longer protect. Opie remained the painter of those only who sought characteristic resemblance, stern truth, and solidity of method. But his parts were not limited by portrait; he had Jong and often with felicity represented the incidents of rustic and common life, in picturesque groups; and the plans of historic painting, contrived by commerce at that period, called forth what was latent in him of historic power; the specimens which he had given in the Royal Exhibition were succeeded by a numerous series of religious and dramatic subjects, painted for the Boydell and Macklin galleries. By the establishment of the former, in 1786, Opie was first fully made known to the public, and the latent powers of his mind were called forth. For this gallery he painted five large pictures, of which the finest was from the Winter’s Tale; Leontes administering the oath to Antigenus to take charge of the child. But he produced, about the same time, a work of far more excellent quality in effect and colour, viz. the assassination of James I. of Scotland, now in the Common Council room at Guildhall, a work which, for hue and colour, challenges competition with the best, and is wrought with the greatest boldness and force.

Of Opie’s style, the more engaging characteristics are breadth, simplicity, and force; its defects are want of grace and variety of invention; and of elegance and refinement in expression aud execution. The objects of his | choice were among the striking and terrible, rather than the agreeable and beautiful; and the materials he introduced were more accordant to his ideas of the picturesque than the proper. He frequently violated costume, not for want of knowledge, so much as from an insatiable desire of contrast; and sometimes from conveniency. His taste lay in the representation of natural objects with strong effect: he therefore made use of armour, or of draperies which he had in his study, and, like Rembrandt, adopted them as his antiques, and used them according as he felt they would best promote his immediate end. These defects are redeemed, to the well-informed eye, by the absolute truth of imitation in which they are wrought, by the expression of his heads, particularly of old men, or of strongly-marked characters, which are exceedingly impressive, by the energetic actions of his principal figures, by the broad and daring execution of his pencil, and by the magic force of his chiaro-scuro. In the latter point no artist ever excelled him. His figures project from the canvas in some of his best works and if seen under favourable circumstances, would be absolutely illusive .*


This character of Opie’s paintings, we take from his biographer in the Cyclopædia. Mr. Fuseli’s opinion, in his last edition of Pilkington’s Dictionary, seems not less worthy of attention. “Breadth, simplicity, and solidity of method, distinguish the style of Opie but his breadth often degenerated to sheety emptiness, especially in drapery; rusticity oftener than naivete attends his simplicity, and the solidity of his method is not seldom allied to coarseness. Not learned in design, reduced to what correctness be could discover in his model, he soon became a mannerist in forms; and to avoid being minute or meagre, ofteu involved parts and outline in a doughy mass. Nature had endowed him with an exquisite eye for colour; the Tizianesque tone that distinguished his murder of James I. remains unrivalled among the productions of his contemporaries, and was not, perhaps, equalled by any of his subsequent performances; for the dictates of practice are seldom those of nature. His invention is less inspired by the most important moment of the subject than what appeared to him the most picturesque, and the likeliest to display contrasts of chiaro scuro, in which he sometimes equals Caravaggio, and, like him too, frequently depends for expression and character on the versatility of features or feelings of one model. As the same face supplied the Italian with the features of S. John and of the executioner, of a pilgrim and a robber, so in the scenes of Opie, the assassin of James only throws off his plaid to assume the cowl of Friar Lawrence, or the fringe and scarlet of Wolsey. The same monotony marks their women: their Madonnas, Magdalens, flower-girls, Judiths, Juliets, and Hobnelias, generally resemble each other too closely, even for sisters. As the tide of historic commissions passed, his conception sunk again to those scenes of common life that had first attracted it; but, not made to dandle a kid, he painted in large historic proportions, misses eloping, beggars, fortune-tellers, cottagevisits, and what commonly recommends itself to the cabinet or parlour by smallness of size and elaborate 6uish; an incongruity which it has since been found easier to adopt, than to imitate the master-traits and the felicity of execution, by which, like Murillo, he often redeemed a colossal trifle.”

| When the tide of historic commissions subsided, employed himself in representing scenes of common life, as well as in portraits. Cottage visits, an old soldier at an. ale-house door, fortune-tellers, and that class of materials which the Dutch and Flemish masters have recommended by high finish and convenient neatness of size, he painted upon a large scale. The reputation so justly due to his talents had now become steadily attached to him, and he had no longer to complain "of the unfeeling caprice of fashion, for he enjoyed an uninterrupted source of employment, in portraiture at least, till his death, and generally disposed of the fancy pictures with which he chose to intersperse his labours. These were very numerous, for he was exceedingly industrious, and his principal delight was in the practice of his profession.

Opie having been admitted an associate of the Royal Academy in 1786, and an academician in the year following, upon the dismissal of Mr. Barry from the body, aspired to the honour of being professor of painting, but resigned his pretensions in favour of Mr. Fuseli, who was chosen. When that gentleman was appointed to the station of keeper in 1805, he again advanced his claim, and vyas unanimously received. He had previously tried his power in literary composition, with no slight degree of success; first in the life of sir J. Reynolds, in Dr. Wolcot’s edition of Pilkington’s dictionary, and again in the publication of a plan for the formation of a national gallery, “tending at once to exalt the arts of his country and immortalize its glories.” He afterwards, in 1804, read two lectures on painting at the Royal Institution, which were fraught with instructions, and were received with applause; though it has been observed by a judicious critic, that the style in, which they were composed was “abrupt, crowded, and frequently unmethodical; rather rushing forward himself, than leading his auditors to the subject.” Nevertheless, his exertions on this occasion drew upon him respect, the more, perhaps, as he was not generally known to be a man fond of literature; and the world were the more surprised to hear refined sentiments in easy and even elegant language, from one who was not unfrequently represented as coarse and vulgar in mind and manner. In fact, Opie by no means merited such an unfavourable report; he was plain and unaffected, and spoke his mind freely; was manly and energetic, yielding little to folly or caprice, | and by no means adapted to gratify the vain and ignorant; but he was not wilfully offensive, and condemned warmly those who were so.

He possessed a tenacious memory, and readily quoted in conversation the authors he had read, particularly the poets, and was a playful and entertaining companion when he found his company agreeable to him, capable of enjoying his humour, of benefiting by his information, or of eliciting reflection in his own mind; and it was seldom that a thinking man could be in his society without feeling roused by his energy.

The lectures which he delivered at the Royal Academy are published to the world, it is therefore not necessary to enter upon their merits; but it will be justice to their author, earnestly to recommend the perusal of them to all who wish to understand the principles of the art on which they treat. Unhappily the course was incomplete, as he only gave four lectures of the six prescribed to each professor. The world were deprived all further benefit from his powerful intellects by his death, which occurred, after a lingering illness, in April 1807. He was honoured by an interment in St. Paul’s cathedral, near the grave of sir Joshua Reynolds, and his funeral was most respectfully attended by almost all the members of the Royal Academy, and many of the nobility and gentry of the country. 1


Memoirs by Mrs. Opie and others, prefixed to his Lectures. —Rees’s Cyclopaedia. Pilkington, by Fuseli.