Opie produced portraits and subject paintings of striking originality and realism. Although little-known today, his work created a sensation in exhibitions during his lifetime.
His success is surprising because of his background. Artists generally came from artistic families, or from educated, middle-class homes where their interest in such a risky career could be indulged. Opie was born at St Agnes, near Truro in Cornwall, the son of a mine carpenter. Although he did attend school, he was probably largely self-educated. A wealthy local couple later reported that he visited the library in their house and ‘read every book in it’. But Opie’s father opposed his intellectual and artistic interests, and trained him as a carpenter.
Opie’s life was transformed when he encountered the poet and art critic, Dr John Wolcot. He brought Opie to London and launched him as the ‘Cornish Wonder’. He became the painter’s manager, taking a cut of his earnings. Opie swiftly gained fame as a sort of self-taught genius. There were elements of snobbery in the way he was treated by contemporaries. One even described him as ‘a rude, clownish boy’.
Opie could play up to his rustic reputation but, remarkably, soon broke free from Wolcot’s influence. Establishing himself independently in a fast-changing and competitive art market, he achieved professional success. Opie died suddenly at the height of his fame, the year after becoming Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy in 1806.
Curated by Alice Insley and Martin Myrone