Orpheus Instructing a Savage People in Theology and the Arts of Social Life
James Barry (English, 1741–1806)
Pressly 17, first state of three
Platemark: 41.7 x 50.5 cm (16 7/16 x 19 7/8 in.) Sheet: 44.8 x 58.3 cm (17 5/8 x 22 15/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Etching and engraving
Not On View
James Barry was one of the most singular figures of eighteenth-century British art. After gaining recognition in his native Ireland, he became a protégée of Edmund Burke, who financed his six years of European travel from 1765-71. Barry pursued studies intended to perfect his abilities as a history painter. Well aware of the narrow market for his chosen specialty, Barry set the stage for his return to London by submitting three large, complex paintings to the annual exhibition of the recently chartered Royal Academy. Within two years of his return, he was elected to that body.
The greatest opportunity of Barry’s career came when the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce attempted to commission a cycle of large history paintings and allegories from a group of Academicians that included Barry. The Society proposed paying the artists from admission fees to an exhibition of the completed pictures. The artists voted to reject the scheme. Barry, however, could not resist the chance to produce a major cycle. In 1777, he offered to paint the full cycle himself. The offer was accepted, and with seven years’ labor, Barry produced what Ellis Waterhouse said “must still be accounted the most considerable achievement in the true ‘grand style’ by any British painter of the [eighteenth] century.”
The first three paintings of the cycle depict the rise of Greek civilization. “Orpheus,” the first painting, in which mankind moves from savagery to faith and social order, measured about twelve by fifteen feet. Barry established a Christian subtext by posing Orpheus is a stance associated since the Renaissance with John the Baptist. The softly side-lit scene literally depicts the dawn of civilization.
The paintings received critical praise, but attendance at the opening exhibitions was light and Barry’s monetary compensation small. Ever a prickly character, Barry complained openly about the lack of support that his project had received from nobles and other trend setters. When sympathetic parties tried to promote schemes to reward Barry, his recriminations backfired, for those who had felt his lash withheld their support.
Years later Barry sought to capitalize on his great achievement by producing a series of prints, which he published in 1792. Though “Orpheus” is based on the Society painting, it differs from its model in countless details, including stances, garments, and identity of figures, as well as in landscape elements. When he published the series, he noted that he had pulled some proofs before the lettering had been completed. The present brilliant impression of “Orpheus” appears to belong to this group. Lifetime impressions of the prints are scarce, partly due to Barry’s reluctance to ask friends to buy them and by his refusal to solicit business from others whom he thought should come to him.
Barry’s outspoken, radical republicanism, the eccentric quality of his lectures, and his sharp criticism of his peers, led to his expulsion from the Academy in 1799. He fell into poverty but was ultimately honored with burial in St. Paul’s.
Hill-Stone (New York); from whom puchased by MFA, December 12, 2007.
Museum purchase with funds by exchange from Harvey D. Parker Collection—Harvey Drury Parker Fund and Gift of Mrs. Josiah Bradlee