John Opie, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1790-91
29.88 x 25.12 in.
John Opie (1761-1807) was a prominent English history painter and portraitist. Born in Cornwall to a master carpenter, Opie showed prodigious talent in drawing and mathematics. By age twelve he had opened a small school to teach local poor children reading, writing, and arithmetic. However Opie's father was not supportive of his son's gifts and apprenticed him to a carpenter. Opie came to the attention of the celebrated satirist John Wolcot who bought Opie out of his apprenticeship and took him under his wing. After a few years of experience painting portrait around Cornwall, Opie and Wolcot moved to London. Although Opie did a number of history paintings, he became best known for his portraits. His subjects included lords and artists like Henry Fuseli, as well as many anonymous figures—peasants, or more likely models posing as such. One of his subjects was the celebrated writer and feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (and mother of Mary Shelley). Opie painted a second portrait of Wollstonecraft in 1797, the year of her death. That piece is extremely simple, just a direct and honest portrait of its subject. It is a beautiful painting and has become the canonical image of Wollstonecraft, but I find this earlier portrait more interesting. We see Wollstonecraft reading and turned toward the artist, as though caught mid-page. This is a common portrait pose, but usually seen with great learned men, emphasizing their years of study. The effect is similar here, and it is exciting to see a woman of that time portrayed in this way. Wollstonecraft comes across extremely intelligent and engaged. She meets the gaze of the artist and viewer, inviting us into the picture space. Opie portrays her with great skill and care, showing the texture of her hair and dress, her keen expression, and her engaged right hand actively turning the page.