New Acquisition: John Opie's 'A Portrait of an Old Jew'

New Acquisition: John Opie's 'A Portrait of an Old Jew'

By: Louise Connell
Added: 27 May 2016

Penlee House Gallery & Museum has successfully raised £18,000 to purchase an important painting by John Opie (1761 - 1807). The picture, ‘A Portrait of an Old Jew’, shows an elder from the Penzance Jewish community. The work was acquired with grants from The Art Fund, ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and The Friends of Penlee House, as well as several private donations.

John Opie was born into a working class family near St Agnes but from an early age showed an exceptional talent for portrait painting. By 1779, when this picture was painted, Opie had produced a number of character paintings of working people, including the last native Cornish speaker, Dolly Pentreath. Opie painted this likeness, believed to be of the Penzance Rabbi, Abraham Hart, as one of these ‘character pieces’, rather than a commissioned portrait.

 Opie was so pleased with the portrait that it was one of four pictures that he took with him to London in 1781 to show King George III and Queen Charlotte, leading to valuable commissions that launched his career and earned him the title ‘The Cornish Wonder’.

Director of Penlee House, Louise Connell says: “This is one of the earliest known portraits of a person from the Penzance Jewish community and is therefore hugely significant. We are fairly certain that the sitter is Rabbi Abraham Hart, who died in 1784 and would have been the most senior person in the Penzance Jewish community at the time the picture was painted. His face, looking directly at us from out of the shadows, has remarkable vitality and shows the influence of the Dutch artist Rembrandt, whom Opie admired. It was important that Penlee should acquire it for a public gallery, both as a great example of the work of John Opie and a reminder of the contribution of Jewish people to Penzance’s history.”

Jewish people, mostly from Northern Europe, came to Penzance in the early 18th century as part of the expansion of the tin industry and the prosperity it brought. The small plot of land leased as a Jewish Cemetery in Penzance is preserved to this day. Though not all the graves are marked, it is very likely that Abraham Hart was buried here. As the population of Penzance increased, dwellings and a school were built around the cemetery walls. In 2004, it was awarded Grade II Listed status by English Heritage and was restored in 2015.

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