In this ongoing series for Fine Art Today, we take a longer look at the history and features of a soon-to-be-available artwork of note. This week: Sir William Orpen, “Sergeant Murphy & Things.”

Healthy rivalries are always a good thing. Whether in sports, such as Duke and UNC basketball, or in art, rivalries motivate both parties to become better. As each reaches a new goal or renown, the other is often injected with energy, more ready than ever to top the success of their competitor.

Although Sir Alfred Munnings was widely considered the best sporting artist of the 20th century, right on his heels was his friend and competitor Sir William Orpen (1878-1931). The rivalry between the two artists began in the trenches of World War I, as both were stationed in France as war artists.

Sir William Orpen, “Sergeant Murphy & Things,” circa 1923, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 40 in. (c) The Sporting Art Auction 2016
Sir William Orpen, “Sergeant Murphy & Things,” circa 1923, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 40 in. (c) The Sporting Art Auction 2016

Heading to auction via the Sporting Art Auction in Lexington, Kentucky, is a gorgeous original by Orpen titled “Sergeant Murphy & Things.” According to the auction, this work perhaps represents the conclusion of Orpen’s and Munnings’ rivalry — and “quite impressively Orpen’s first attempt at a horse portrait.” Gracefully perched atop a sandy hilltop are two men on foot and a rider on a horse. Set against clouds rendered in a rainbow spectrum, a fenced grassy field is seen in the background, with a polo round in progress.

Despite being the artist’s first attempt at a horse portrait, the magnificent animal is rendered with precision and an acute sense of texture. “It is often said that this work was an endeavor to prove that Orpen could paint a horse portrait that would rival those of Munnings,” the auction writes. “Orpen, after all, was one of the most fashionable portrait painters — a ‘prodigy from Dublin’ who had taken London society by storm.”

First exhibited in 1924 at the Royal Academy, “Sergeant Murphy & Things” was actually hung next to a Munnings during the show. Continuing, the auction reports, “Many elements within Orpen’s painting of Sergeant Murphy are, in fact, borrowed motifs from Munnings’ oeuvre. The oak tree is a notable example as several of Munnings’ patrons went so far as to request oak trees in their commissioned paintings. Chris Pearson, a scholar of Orpen, even suggests that the man leaning against the oak tree in ‘Sergeant Murphy & Things’ is Munnings himself — a tongue-in-cheek nod to Munnings’ reputation as the top horse painter of the day.”

“Sergeant Murphy & Things” is available via the Sporting Art Auction on November 21. Estimates are between $350,000 and $450,000. To learn more, visit Live Auctioneers.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


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