William N. Copley

Place de l’Opéra


Not on display

William N. Copley 1919–1996
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1159 × 810 mm
Presented by Sir Roland Penrose 1961


Place de L’Opera is an oil painting on canvas by the American artist William N. Copley. A blue car with twisted chassis, front axel and chrome bumper dominates the picture. Two golden yellow headlights glow above the bumper. The car’s number plate shows the letters CPLY and a cranking handle droops down onto the square paving below. Inside the car a lilac umbrella rests on the parcel shelf while two small figures, recognisable as opera singers from their clothing and gestures, perform in the rear window. The car, which appears to have crashed into and driven over a red and white ‘No Entry’ sign, is at a standstill. Behind it is a decorative dark green lamppost that supports three round white bulbs, and beyond this appears an ornate blue building, the warm glow of interior lighting seeping out through a series of small windows on its façade. A continuous midnight blue night sky forms the background to the building, accentuating its intricacies. The picture is painted in an almost cartoon-like fashion, with objects, or parts of objects, clearly delineated with thick lines and swathes of paint.

Place de L’Opera was made by Copley in 1956 when he was living in Paris. During his time in the city (1951–62) he made numerous paintings of cars, such as Fête Foraine 1957 (Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection, New York; Celant 2016, p.109). Copley’s 1956 exhibition at the Galerie du Dragon, Paris, in which Place de L’Opera was first shown, also included other such car paintings. The artist frequently signed his paintings ‘Cply’, an abbreviation of Copley, and in the case of Place de L’Opera this appears as the car’s registration number.

Copley began his career as a writer and a poet, turning to the visual arts after his return from service in the Second World War. He did not train as an artist and his move into the field was initially an experiment in writing, as he stated in 1968:

I really started painting as what I thought was an exercise to writing. Because I had read Joyce and decided that my writing was not sufficiently visual. And thought that by painting I could sharpen my visual perception and be able to transmit that in my writing.
(Quoted in Celant 2016, p.13.)

Copley rejected American action painting and abstract expressionism – styles that were prominent in American art at this time – and instead looked to European painting for inspiration, foregrounding the figurative in his work. He used humour and cartoon-like figures and objects in his paintings, an approach that he had been exposed to through his friend and brother-in-law, the Disney animator John Ployardt, who also introduced him to surrealism. During his time in Paris Copley became a close friend and patron of the surrealists Man Ray, Max Ernst and René Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp was Copley’s mentor.

After the first exhibition of Place de L’Opera at the Galerie du Dragon in 1956, the painting was purchased by the artist and historian Sir Roland Penrose. It was shown in the exhibition Cply at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in May to July 1961. Penrose presented the work to the Tate Gallery that same year.

Further reading
Germano Celant (ed.), William N. Copley, exhibition catalogue, Fondazione Prada and Menil Collection, Milan 2016.

Beth Williamson
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

William N. Copley born 1919 [- 1996]

T00442 Place de l'Opéra 1956

Inscribed 'Cply' on the car's numberplate
Oil on canvas, 45 5/8 x 31 7/8 (116 x 81)
Presented by Sir Roland Penrose 1965
Prov: Sir Roland Penrose, London (purchased from the artist through the Galerie du Dragon)
Exh: Copley: Peintures Récentes, Galerie du Dragon, Paris, March 1956 (works not listed); Cply, ICA, London, May-July 1965 (8)

The artist wrote (23 March 1962): 'The car had a smash-up outside the Paris Opéra and the little lady and gentleman at the back are opera singers'. His exhibition at the Galerie du Dragon in which this work was first shown included various other fantastic paintings of cars. As Patrick Waldberg wrote in the catalogue introduction: 'Copley's recent production, here assembled, shows him a prey to an obsession with cars'.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.131, reproduced p.131

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