Opie's A Beggar Boy: an element of self-portraiture

Sometimes an artwork just sticks with you. It could be the subject, medium or artist – or it could be for absolutely no reason at all. For me, one of these artworks is John Opie’s A Beggar Boy, a permanent member of the Falmouth Art Gallery collection.

See? ‘Member’. Already, I’m talking as if the painting is the subject.

Look at him. Look at those eyes.  Opie took particular care over the expression in his eyes, like he passed this boy in the street and it was his hypnotic gaze that made him so memorable.

But there must be an element of poetic licence here. If this boy really looked like this, with his clean, cherub face and pitiful, isolated stance, then surely he would have evoked enough compassion (or at least attracted enough pennies in his hat) to get off the streets, one way or another.  With the light on his face, he looks angelic. The fiery background looks hellish.

With any medium, from photography to sculpture, it is easy to forget that we are not seeing a subject, but an artist’s interpretation of a subject. In A Beggar Boy, I am seeing more of John Opie than the child himself.  I’m not sure of the truth, but it seems that this painting is the result of Opie walking past a boy in the street and painting him from memory. In Opie’s mind (and in his rose-tinted memory), this Beggar Boy is an angel in a hellish world.

But art isn't always about truth. Just as a journalist writes to persuade his readers, so an artist conveys his opinion through paint - and John Opie has done a hell of a good job in making us pity this vagabond. Falmouth Art Gallery says John Opie was Cornwall’s first famous painter and with a work like this, it’s easy to see why.

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