Oil on canvas
27 3/8” x 18 3/8”
Opie painted this portrait of a Jewish man in the months before the move to London, 1780. He was living at Helston with Dr John Wolcot, his mentor and teacher, setting out on painting expeditions to neighbouring towns. Penzance offered the prospect of commissions; Opie painted portraits there for various gentlemen, including Price, Rogers and St Aubyn. He was beginning to realise the potential of paintings of characters such as beggars, vagrants and elderly folk. This Jewish subject was another such. It was probably not commissioned by the subject but as it had a general interest, Opie knew it would find a purchaser.
There is an echo of an etching of a Jew by Rembrandt, which Opie must have known.
This painting was not sold, but was kept back as stock for the planned initial display in London.
On arrival in London, the painting was a highlight of the exhibition in the house at Orange Court.
When Wolcot went to tell his friend Reynolds about the new young Cornish Wonder, two paintings were taken, this Old Jew being one of them. It was on the basis of these two works that Reynolds made his momentous pronouncement that Opie was “like Caravaggio but finer”.
Subsequently Opie was summoned by King George lll. On a visit that was to prove invaluable for Opie’s reputation, the artist took four paintings to show the Royal family. One was this Old Jew. The King purchased another work – “A Beggar and his Dog”.
The Old Jew was thus one of the works on which Opie’s reputation as THE CORNISH WONDER depended.
It was purchased by Cornishman Davies Giddy, better known as Gilbert. It passed by marriage to the Enys family in Cornwall and was in Truro Museum for many years before being sold by the family in 2004.
Current research sheds light on the identity of the sitter. The painting has been known as JEWISH RABBI but there is nothing in the painting to suggest that he was actually a Rabbi. There were Jews in Penzance and Falmouth in 1780. In Falmouth the congregation president was Alexander Moses (1715- 1791) and there was Isaac Polack also. If he was resident ion Penzance, he was most probably a member of the Hart family, quite probably Abraham Hart. (Keith Pearce, author with Godfrey Simmons, of THE LOST JEWS OF CORNWALL.)