Portrait of Michael Davitt by Sir William Orpen RHA (1878 – 1931)

Portrait of Michael Davitt

Date: c. 1906
Dimensions: 24 × 24.5cm
Medium: Oils
Collection: Niland Collection
Provenance: Presented by Miss Aileen Bodkin, daughter of Dr. Thomas Bodkin, to Sligo County Library and Museum, in 1963. In memory of Dr. Thomas Bodkin.


William Orpen was one of the most successful artists of his generation. Born in Dublin, he studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he later became an influential teacher, and at the Slade School, London. Although he made his name painting the British aristocracy, Orpen also produced a number of portraits of distinguished Irish men for a series that Hugh Lane had originally commissioned from John B. Yeats. Orpen’s portrait of the Michael Davitt (1846–1906), Leader of the Land League, is now in the Collection of the Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane, and is amongst the most successful of the series.

This painting has none of the refinement of the Hugh Lane work and appears to be an oil sketch more closely related to Orpen’s drawing of Davitt in the National Gallery of Ireland. Orpen only had a few sittings with Davitt and it is possible that both these works were executed from memory rather than life. Unusually, the Model and Niland portrait depicts Davitt’s torso from the right side. He had lost his right arm in his youth and was therefore usually depicted from the left.

Written by Riann Coulter


About the Artist

Sir William Orpen RHA (1878 – 1931)

Born 1878, Stillorgan, Ireland. Died 1931, London, England. Recognised for his talent from a young age, Orpen studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and the Slade, London, where he met artists such as Augustus John and William Crampton Gore. Orpen was involved in the New English Art Club and became a highly skilled and very successful portrait and subject painter. He settled in London, but returned to Ireland regularly and taught at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he revolutionised art education in Ireland. His academic style influenced a generation of Irish artists. Orpen spent the summer with his family, renting a house at Howth, County Dublin. However, he developed an ardent love affair with his patron, the wealthy American heiress, Evelyn St. George and wrote to her regularly. In 1907 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Vere Foster family and while staying at their home in County Louth, he wrote to Mrs St. George about the commission, including an illustration of himself with ‘Biddy’, the Vere Foster’s eldest daughter. In 1915, during World War I, Orpen was appointed official war artist. He was committed to the war effort and even loaned his Rolls Royce to the British Red Cross. Originally yellow, the car was painted white and the side panels marked with a red cross. After the war he documented the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

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