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JOHN OPIE (1761-1807)

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Originally appearing in Volume V20, Page 129 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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JOHN OPIE (1761-1807), English historical and portrait painter, was born at St Agnes near Truro in May 1761. He early showed a taste for drawing, besides having at the age of twelve mastered Euclid and opened an evening school for arithmetic and writing. Before long he won some local reputation by portrait-painting; and in 178o he started for London, under the patronage of Dr Wolcot (Peter Pindar). Opie was introduced to the town as " The Cornish Wonder," a self-taught genius. The world of fashion, ever eager for a new sensation, was attracted; the carriages of the wealthy blocked the street in which the painter resided, and for a time he reaped a rich harvest by his portraits. But soon the fickle tide of popularity flowed past him, and the painter was left neglected. He now applied himself with redoubled diligence to correcting the defects which marred his art, meriting the praise of his rival Northcote—" Other artists paint to live; Opie lives to paint." At the same time he sought to supplement his early education by the study of Latin and French and of the best English classics, and to polish the rudeness of his provincial manners by mixing in cultivated and learned circles. In 1786 he exhibited his first important historical subject, the " Assassination of James I., " and in the following year the Murder of Rizzio," a work whose merit was recognized by the artist's immediate election as associate of the Academy, of which he became a full member in 1788. He was employed on five subjects for Boydell's " Shakespeare Gallery "; and until his death, on the 9th of April 18o7, his practice alternated between portraiture and historical work. His productions are distinguished by breadth of handling and a certain rude vigour, individuality and freshness. They are wanting in grace, elegance and poetic feeling. Opie is also favourably known as a writer on art by his Life of Reynolds in Wolcot's edition of Pilkington, his Letter on the Cultivation of the Fine Arts in England, in which he advocated the formation of a national gallery, and his Lectures as professor of painting to the Royal Academy, which were published in 1809, with a memoir of the artist by his widow (see above).
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