Sir William Orpen enjoyed a highly successful career, celebrated in his day as one of the leading portrait painters of his generation. He was also admired as one of the finest draughtsmen, evidenced in the present work. It relates to Orpen’s oil, Nude Pattern: The Holy Well (National Gallery of Ireland) (fig. 1), one of three ambitious canvases that became known as William Orpen’s ‘Irish Trilogy’ (the others being Sowing New Seed (Mildura Art Centre, Victoria, Australia) and The Western Wedding (formerly Matsukata Collection, presumed lost)). ‘Executed in “marble-medium”, and designed as an allegory in which Aran Island fisher-folk ritually bath in the sacred waters of a holy well, it would echo the great solemn fresco cycles of revered Renaissance masters’ (Kenneth McConkey). Indeed, Orpen revered the iconic Piero della Francescas in the National Gallery, London and the figure in the present work strikingly recalls the man removing his shirt in The Baptism of Christ.
Study for Nude Pattern: The Holy Well is one of seventeen ‘finished’ or ‘stand-alone’ studies of the principal figures that relate to the final oil. Orpen’s artist friend Sean Keating recalled that ‘the drawings from which he painted the figures were done in lead pencil on smooth white paper, the tones rubbed in with a paper stamp. Orpen greatly admired Ingres’ drawings whom he rather resembled in looks but in my opinion they are finer than Ingres’, tho’ it is considered heresy to say so.’ 2 The finished oil and studies were purchased by Orpen’s lover and patron Mrs Evelyn St George. They were subsequently sold in her Estate sale in 1939 and not all have since resurfaced (the most recent example appearing at Sotheby’s, 27 September 2017, lot 301). The studies demonstrate Orpen’s exquisite draughtsmanship and his facility, as the art critic Peter Konody observed, with ‘the intricacies of the human structure, the interplay of bony and fleshy forms, the suggestion of actual and of potential movement, the whole articulation of the human mechanism.’3
1. Chenil Gallery, London, Drawings by William Orpen, A.R.A., exh. cat. (1915?), p. 6
2. Letter from Sean Keating to James White, quoted in William Orpen: A Centenary Exhibition,, NGI exh. cat., 1978, p.53, under no. 99
3. The Studio, December 1932, p.310
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