Born in Ireland, William Orpen studied in Dublin from 1892 to 1896 and went to London for further study at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1896. For the rest of his life, he lived and worked in London. There he received a number of honors, including membership in the New English Art Club, a governmental appointment as an official war artist during World War I, and a knighthood in 1918. He continued to work as a fashionable portrait painter during the 1920s, portraying wealthy and prestigious sitters in a traditional, highly polished style that rejected more recent developments in avant-garde art. He also produced a number of realistic self-portraits, both before and after the war, including Myself and Cupid (1910, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh) and Ready to Start (1917, Imperial War Museum, London).
This self-portrait, also known as Leading the Life in the West, refers to Orpen's life as a young artist in the West End of London. Orpen stands reflected full-length in a mirror in his studio, wearing a bowler hat and holding gloves and a riding crop. A shelf below the mirror holds paintbrushes and rags, the tools of the artist's trade, as well as several bottles of liquor. Various pieces of correspondence, including an I.O.U. signed by Orpen, are tucked behind the frame of the mirror, further testifying to the pleasures and distractions of the painter's early career. The space of the picture is shallow but complex, with Orpen using his skills as a draftsman to resolve the challenges of surface, lighting, and reflection that he has set for himself.