Portrait of a Boy in a Top Hat

Oil Painting
late 18th century-1st quarter 19th century (painted)
Not currently on display at the V&A

Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

Half-length portrait of a boy who is shown wearing a top hat, leaning on a post and holding a fishing rod and the fish he has caught. A young boy in a dark coat and top hat, around which is encircled a feather, leaning on a post, possibly the end of a fence. A fishing rod is tightly tucked in the fold of his arm as he leans and holds in his right hand the fish he has caught. A country scene is visible in the background, a river winding into the distance towards what appears to be a group of houses.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Oil on canvas
Brief Description
Oil painting entitled 'Portrait of a Boy in a Top Hat' by John Opie. Great Britain, ca. late 18th century-ca. 1807.
Physical Description
Half-length portrait of a boy who is shown wearing a top hat, leaning on a post and holding a fishing rod and the fish he has caught. A young boy in a dark coat and top hat, around which is encircled a feather, leaning on a post, possibly the end of a fence. A fishing rod is tightly tucked in the fold of his arm as he leans and holds in his right hand the fish he has caught. A country scene is visible in the background, a river winding into the distance towards what appears to be a group of houses.
Dimensions
  • Estimate height: 76.2cm
  • Estimate width: 24.875cm
Style
Credit line
Bequeathed by Claude D. Rotch
Object history
Bequeathed by Claude D. Rotch, 1962.



Historical Significance: John Opie (1761-1807) was born in Cornwall and apprenticed to a carpenter, following in his father’s trade, before coming to the attention of a local doctor, John Wolcot (1738-1819), who became his mentor. On moving to London, Opie became known as ‘the Cornish Wonder’ after his work was received with great acclaim, reputedly prompting Sir Joshua Reynolds to liking him to ‘Caravaggio and Velasquez in one’. His ambition to become a history painter gave rise to his most significant work, although he mostly executed portraits. A trip to the Netherlands during the summer of 1786 was greatly influential in bringing him to experience Rubens and Rembrandt first hand. By c.1800 he began painting large-scale genre scenes and was later elected Professsor of Painting at the Royal Academy, having been elected RA in 1787.



This portrait of a young boy holding fish exemplifies Opie’s skill as a portrait painter, in which he made use of chiaroscuro, the use of clearly defined areas of contrasting tones of light and dark. The influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) transformed Georgian portraiture through his use of the ‘Grand manner’, presenting sitters in spectacular settings which reflected noble qualities and drew on poses from Old Masters. His style had a profound impact on portrait painters of the eighteenth-century, such as Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), and was greatly admired by Opie, who sought to emulate him, most visibly in his lighting and in the free handling of paint in the backgrounds of some of his works. This painting is in the genre of ‘fancy pictures’, a term invented by Reynolds to describe the portraits of beggars and peasants produced by Thomas Gainsborough at the end of his career.



Opie’s depiction of a young boy of relatively low social status, also undertaken in his Portrait of a Boy Seeking Alms and The Shepherd Boy, can be seen to reflect the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century’s renewed interest in depictions of low life, exemplified in the work of David Wilkie (1785-1841) and George Morland (1763-1804). Genre painting, portraying most especially the lower classes of society, depicts scenes from everyday life. Set in domestic interiors or in the countryside, they came to be associated with health and pleasure. The seventeenth-century Dutch tradition of genre painting was especially influential during the new vogue which sought to represent a romanticized and vigorous image of rural life. Although not depicting a scene with figures in the way Opie does in The Peasant’s Family (Tate Britain, London), the present picture reflects this vogue for representations of low-life, whilst combining it with the defined, dramatic lighting of Opie’s society portraits and history paintings, attempting, as it were, to elevate low life into high art.

Subjects depicted
Bibliographic Reference
Victoria & Albert Museum Department of Prints and Drawings and Department of Paintings, Accessions 1962. London: HMSO, 1964.
Collection
Accession Number
P.40-1962

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record createdFebruary 14, 2007
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