Sir William Orpen

Anatomical Study, Turning Man after Michelangelo


Not on display

Sir William Orpen 1878–1931
Chalk on paper
Support: 1305 × 786 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund, Tate Members, the Olivier family and individual donors 2011


This drawing was used by William Orpen to teach anatomy to his students at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he taught from 1902 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. It is one of twenty large-scale anatomical drawings by Orpen in the Tate collection. The delineation of the body’s structure in red and white chalk on black paper allowed it to be visible to students when pinned up on the blackboard during teaching. Each of the drawings from this group depict the structure of the human body, its bones, the muscles that stretch over them, and the way that its limbs move. Orpen had studied life drawing at the Slade School of Art, London, under the former surgeon Henry Tonks, and this training had convinced him of the importance of understanding the underlying anatomical structure of the figure as well as its outward appearance.

Orpen’s diagrams are also virtuoso achievements of draughtsmanship. Drawn on black sugar paper, the outlines in white chalk are set down in a confident and smooth, unwavering hand. These lines are, in many cases, almost continuous, something that is especially challenging when drawing on such a large scale.

Born in Ireland but spending most of his career in London, William Orpen was one of the most commercially successful artists of the first two decades of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he committed valuable time to teach at Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art. His own training there in the 1890s had been outdated, with students drawing in the main from antique casts. Orpen wanted to emulate the more modern and pragmatic teaching he had subsequently received as a student at the Slade School in London. It was a process of practical reform but an important one that Orpen hoped would inspire a new generation of Irish artists at a time of cultural renewal in Dublin, from the revival of the Irish language to the shocking realist plays at the Abbey Theatre. Ireland was reasserting its own identity after centuries of British rule, a crucial part of the journey to independence, and Orpen wanted to play his part in that. The reform of art teaching in Dublin thus became an act of cultural assertion.

The drawings can be divided into three principal types. First, and most numerous, are the detailed anatomical diagrams of limbs and torsos, each labelled with the Latin names for their body parts. These are sometimes accompanied by smaller illustrations on the same sheet of the body in different positions, and the effect of movement on the muscles. In many cases these diagrams appear to have been adapted from the medical publication Gray’s Anatomy (1858). Secondly, there are a small number of studies in which Orpen has taken well-known old master drawings or sculptures, such as Michelangelo’s reclining female figure of Dawn in the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, and redrawn them as écorché studies, that is with the skin removed and all their muscles revealed. Last, is a study in which Orpen has applied the same process to the adapted pose of a reclining nude from one of his own paintings, A Woman (Nude Study) 1906 (Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds). Orpen has rotated the figure so that in the anatomical study she is seen from the opposite position to that in the oil painting. The model for this picture was Flossie Burnett, who would have been well known to Orpen’s students. She was one of the professional models from a Chelsea agency who Orpen brought over to Dublin to pose for life classes in the Metropolitan School, and was also his lover. The use of life models at the school was another important and reformist innovation and a further part of Orpen’s programme of updating Dublin’s art teaching. When Orpen himself had attended the school in the 1890s, the students were only once allowed access to a life model after special permission was granted both from the Ministry of Agriculture that governed the school and from the Bishop.

These large anatomical drawings were based on drawings and notes Orpen made in his Anatomical Sketchbook c.1902–6. It includes copious notes summarising the points he wanted to make to the students about the different parts of the body, and appears to have been used as he gave his lectures. There are also directions to himself to ‘draw’, indicating that originally he made each anatomical diagram anew, probably on the blackboard. This suggests that the large sheet drawings were made at a later stage, their materials of red and white chalk on black paper chosen to imitate the original blackboard drawings. They were then kept as a reusable resource, and the studies in the sketchbook relate closely to them. The sketchbook also contains a single page introduction to the anatomy course which Orpen would have read out to his students:

Before starting these lectures I wish to put it clearly to you: that unless you work very hard you will not be able to keep pace with me and the lectures will be useless to you. I also wish to warn you of the great danger there is to a certain class of man in learning anatomy – the knowledge of how the body is put together often make [sic] these kind of people take things for granted in the figure they are trying to draw from – and so miss all the peculiarities and character of that particular individual whom they are working from. The first thing to get well fixed in your mind is that no two human beings are alike – look at every new person with a fresh eye – and take nothing for granted.

Dating the drawings with certainty within the period that Orpen was teaching in Dublin is difficult. While he started teaching there in 1902, on the evidence of the instructions in his lecture sketchbook the large-scale diagrams were a later development. It is possible that he may have used them at the short-lived private art school in Chelsea that he started with Augustus John (1878–1961) in 1903. The drawing of Flossie Burnett most likely dates from around 1906, the year Orpen exhibited A Woman at the New English Art Club in November, and it is therefore likely that this was when the others were made too. He was certainly using the diagrams in 1908 when he sent an illustrated letter to his wife and showed them pinned to the blackboard. Slight differences of approach and subject matter may indicate that they were not all made at quite the same time.

Further reading
Robert Upstone (ed.), William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death, exhibition catalogue, Imperial War Museum, London, and National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin 2005.
Robert Upstone, William Orpen: Teaching the Body, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009.

Robert Upstone and Emma Chambers
November 2009, revised May 2011

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