Carrick Hill's The Good Samaritan, although unsigned and undated, is possibly the painting that appeared under that title as Catalogue Item No 3 in Orpen's first one-man show in November 1901, at the Carfax Gallery in London.
This early work of Orpen's is a forerunner of the parable paintings that were key icons throughout his career. Orpen's 'parables' were painted at climactic times in his life, especially during the period 1913-1916 with his series of tortured, allegorical paintings concerning the suffering of Ireland.
In his parable paintings Orpen was driven by the need to make a statement about his own life, and to convey a judgement on the world in which the artist found himself. Orpen's 'parables' were heartfelt; even at the very end of his life, after years of concentrating mainly on portraiture, he returned to parable painting with Palm Sunday (1931).
All the parable paintings done by Orpen present puzzles and paradoxes, seemingly insoluble unless the viewer is aware of the artist's feelings and thoughts.
Similarly it is difficult to know what message Orpen is trying to convey in this painting. It has an ethereal atmosphere, with flat, opaque colours, the whole bleached by an emphatic use of light. The figures flow into each other, clothes merging together in a cascade of white.
The figures dominate, overshadowing and subduing the stillness of the surrounding landscape, its emptiness relieved only by the suggestion of hills and wildflowers.
The central, kneeling figure, the 'Good Samaritan', is the artist himself, who has portrayed his own distinctive facial features. He was known to wear similar clothes during his time at the Slade School of Art-black baggy trousers, a fisherman's jersey and a black felt hat.
Orpen frequently painted himself in this attire in group scenes in other paintings.
The ravaged figure in the middle is possibly the same old man Orpen painted as The Old Cabman and Job. The figure supporting him bears a strong resemblance to an elderly Irishman, Mr Green, who first appeared in Orpen's Window on a London Street, painted in the same year as The Good Samaritan.
It is likely that the figure on the left is Orpen's brother-in-law, Jack Knewstub, whom Orpen often drew and painted. Orpen had recently married Knewstub's sister, Grace, and it was also from Jack Knewstub's Chenil Galleries that Orpen purchased his canvases, with their distinctive 'signature' mark.
Orpen always used a limited palette, often restricted to white, black, green, and various shades of orange. In The Good Samaritan, Orpen seems to be emulating one of his most admired old masters, Velazquez, with a stress on greys and whites and a characteristic infusion of light.
The dominant greyish white tone is bland, as fatalistic as the repose of sleep or death. Yet, the contrast provided by the orange jug, green and white striped material, and the black horse, hat and trousers give drama to the painting, and provide a foil to the flesh tones and the white clothing. An extra, poignant dimension is added when it is remembered that orange, green and white are the national colours of Orpen's native Ireland. Is this parable to do with the sufferings of 'old' Ireland, and is it pointing to the healing of the yet-to-come Irish Renaissance in which Orpen was to playa leading role along with his contemporaries William Yeats, John Synge, George Moore, Sean Keating, Lady Gregory and Sir Hugh Lane?
This is a simple picture, which, for all its ingenuous plainness of techniques, embraces great, elemental basics-earth, sky and humanity.
After brilliant success as a student in Dublin and London, Orpen married in August 1901, and spent his honeymoon in Ireland at Lisheens House, Bantry Bay, County Cork. Lisheens House overlooked the Slieve Mish Mountains, whose outlines Orpen doubtless incorporated as the background in this painting. During his stay at Bantry Bay Orpen painted a great number of works in preparation for his first one-man exhibition at the Carfax Gallery, London, in November of the same year and it is possible that this work was one of those painted at this time, as The Good Samaritan was part of the Carfax Exhibition.
The Carfax Gallery Exhibition received good notices and reasonable sales; an impressive start for the twenty-three year old artist.
Before his death in 1931, at the age of fifty-two, Orpen ranked as one of the most successful, and certainly one of the wealthiest painters ever to have worked in England. He developed a huge reputation as a society painter, perhaps wasting the talent for humanism that is so evident in this quietly confident painting of feeling, the work of a happy, newly-wed young man with the world at his feet.
All Orpen's financial success could not save him from tragedy. During the last years of his life, he experienced emotional and physical problems, the break-up of his marriage and increasing dependence on alcohol. His life encompassed fragments of fame, wealth, success, family, laughter, yet, towards the close it included tragedy and a seeking of religious solace. For a time after his death his works were relegated to store rooms, but in recent years a resurgence of interest in Irish painters has seen his paintings regain popularity and achieve record prices.
It is not known when Sir Edward and Lady Hayward acquired The Good Samaritan, but it is possible that they purchased it during one of their many visits to London dealers after World War II.
It brings a sense of the enigmatic to the Carrick Hill visitor who pauses to absorb its reflective and melancholy qualities.