John Opie, portrait painter

John Opie painted portraits and other paintings in a style similar to that of Rembrandt.

Born May 1761, the son of the village carpenter in Mithhian near St Agnes. He had talent as an artist while still a child, but as he was from a poor family could never have made a living from that, so he became an apprentice in his fathers carpentry business.

Dr John Walcot from Truro discovered him and educated John Opie in mathematics and science as well as drawing and painting.

In 1781, Walcot started Opie’s career in London, marketing him as a naïve genius with the punch line - “The Cornish Wonder.” Dr Walcot also introduced him to Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy.

By 1782 his work was on display in the Royal Academy, and for the next twenty years he was perhaps the most fashionable portrait painter in London, painting some 700 portraits.

His rival James Northcote was to praise Opie's work with the words "Other artists paint to live; Opie lives to paint."

In 1786 his first important historical subject, the "Assassination of James I" was exhibited, and in 1787 the "Murder of Rizzio", which gained him election as associate of the Royal Academy, becoming a full member in 1788.

He tended to alternate between portraits and historical work.

He married novelist and poet, Amelia Alderson in 1798, she outliving him by many years. She is given as his second wife. Although her husband did not share her love of society. He encouraged her to write. I cannot find a reference to his first wife.

In 1805, he became a professor of painting at the Royal Academy and his lectures were published in 1909 after his death.

He died fairly young, on 9th April 1807 after a short illness, and was buried in St Paul's cathedral.

Opie's work is generally regarded as original and individualistic, but perhaps a little crude. Opie is also known as a writer on art.

The Newlyn Gallery was founded in 1895 by philanthropist Passmore Edwards in honour of the "Cornish wonder" John Opie.

National Portrait Gallery - John Opie


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