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The Irishness of Irish Painting

By James Christen Steward | HUMANITIES, January/February 1999 | Volume 20, Number 1

In the past one hundred years, Irish painting has changed from a British-influenced lyrical tradition to an art that evokes the ruggedness and roots of an Irish Celtic past. Along this journey, it absorbed elements from European painting to become an art that draws strength from ancient Celtic myths to confront the deep political and social divisions and violence in Ireland today.

"When Time Began to Rant and Rage: Figurative Painting from Twentieth-Century Ireland," a new exhibition opening at the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California, examines the complicated evolution of modern Irish painting.

Irish painting today grew directly out of the movement that gripped Ireland's writers, artists, and intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century as Ireland's nationalist heart began to beat. The movement had its beginnings in the cultural veneration of Celtic Ireland, which provided the greatest sense of contrast to English culture.

It was in a climate of cultural resurgence and the desire for nationhood that distinct threads emerged in Irish painting at the turn of the century. Before 1900 there was little that was truly Irish in Irish painting. But after 1900, as nationalist energies began to coalesce and gather strength, the revived interest in the Irish language and in Irish culture led to a revival in the Irish visual arts.

Early Transitional Figures

Many Irish artists at the turn of the century were transitional figures. They looked outside of Ireland for their artistic influences and their clients.

Walter Frederick Osborne, for example, began his artistic training in Dublin, at the Royal Hibernian Academy but the more important influences on his style came from the continent. Specifically, his exposure there to "plein air" painting (or painting out of doors) was something he could not have had in Dublin and radically changed his stylistic development.

Sir William Orpen looked to England rather than to France, studying at London's Slade School of Art and allying himself to a group of English artists that included the Welsh-born Augustus John. At the same time, Orpen's best painting participated in the experimentation of the European avant-garde. Certainly Ireland's best-known painter of the day, Orpen was also Ireland's most influential teacher. He taught a generation of artists who turned more to Ireland and Irishness even while adhering to his painterly tenets.

Sir John Lavery was perhaps the most internationally successful Irish artist of this generation. Born in Belfast, Lavery was trained first in Glasgow and then in France, where he was most influenced by academic artists who received official patronage and were outside the impressionist movement. He, too, was captivated by the French school of plein air painting. Unlike Orpen, Lavery maintained close ties with Ireland for the rest of his life, returning frequently and exhibiting at home, even if he resided primarily in London or, later, in the south of France. He was equally at home painting an Edwardian idyll as well as the political leaders at the Anglo-Irish peace conference whose logistics he facilitated. In 1928 he was commissioned to paint the symbol of Éire to be used as the central figure on the bank note of the new Irish Free State. (The image is still used in watermark form.) Returning to the mythology of his native land, Lavery chose as his model his American-born wife as the figure of Éire, with her arm on a Celtic harp, the national symbol of independent Ireland.

While he may have been among the most cosmopolitan of Irish artists, Lavery was not alone in exhibiting an interest in the cause of Irish independence. Beatrice Elvery, an upper middle- class Dubliner, was an accomplished stained-glass artist but a somewhat indifferent painter. Even so, her Éire of 1907 is a landmark achievement that merges influences of Byzantine mosaics with the devotional simplicity of fifteenth-century Italian painting while invoking the iconography of Ireland's Celtic past. The painting embodies a call to arms in the cause of Irish independence, linking the history of Irish Catholicism with the still-nascent Irish republic.

The Realists

From about 1910, memories of Edwardian splendor and nineteenth- century naturalism coexisted with a new sense of realism in Irish painting. Its antecedents could be found in the work of French artists Gustave Courbet and Theodore Rousseau of an earlier generation and their English counterparts, such as Samuel Palmer. Realism was part of a larger movement to rediscover and reclaim distinctly Irish subjects. It was advanced by two artists, Paul Henry and Seán Keating. Both maintained stronger physical and emotional links to the Irish land than did their more cosmopolitan colleagues.

Henry was a native of Belfast; he studied in Paris and worked in London. But Ireland and Irish subject matter lured him home. Keating, perhaps the most ardently Irish of the realists, studied painting under Orpen in Dublin. These Irish artists took as their subjects the everyday life and poverty of the Irish people as well as a sometimes suffocating and repressive domesticity. Realism also crept into the work of the Edwardians, notably Lavery and Orpen, both of whom made paintings that depicted the First World War -- Lavery with a distanced and out- of-touch Victorian nobility, Orpen closer to the front, revealing a more sinister and realistic vision. These paintings were critical observations of an international war into which Ireland was drawn as part of the United Kingdom and came at a time when nationalism and independence were literally exploding at home. The Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin was the most violent example of Irish unrest, which led first to the War of Independence, then to independence in 1922, culminating in a bloody civil war.

Jack B. Yeats: A Revolutionary

Counterpoint to the work of Lavery and Orpen and also to the work of younger artists such as Henry and Keating, came Jack B. Yeats, without question the most important and best-known Irish artist of this century and who changed the course and the face of Irish painting.

Yeats, born in London in 1871, made a kind of revolution in Irish visual expression. He was the younger brother of the poet William Butler Yeats, and younger son of the noted painter John Butler Yeats. Through his brother, Jack Yeats was connected to the Irish literary community. In 1905 he toured the western region of Connemara with the writer John M. Synge. This trip to the West, along with Jack's upbringing in Sligo, made indelible impressions on the artist. His wide-ranging interests led him to depict subjects ranging from street scenes in Dublin to horse races, boxing matches, and funerals. Having studied in London, after 1898 Yeats devoted himself almost entirely to Irish subject matter, emerging twenty years later as a painter of the first rank with works such as The Funeral and On Drumcliffe Strand. These subjects fuse close observations of Irish life and icons with an Irish identity in a way not previously addressed by any Irish artist.

The Lure of the West

The West of Ireland was regarded by both writers and painters as a land fundamentally different from the rest of Ireland. More "primitive," less urban and less English, the West was seen as more authentically Celtic, and ruggedly pastoral. The followers of the Celtic revival movement believed that the true Irish past -- its language, its folklore, its antiquities, and its way of life -- was to be found in the West. Rugged and pure, the West was seen as masculine -- attractive to the independence movement and its Celtic heritage.

Paul Henry, Seán Keating, and Jack Yeats and others turned to the West to find subject matter that would be defined as Irish. Suggesting a sense of uncorrupted Irishness, Charles Lamb's Dancing at a Northern Crossroads, showing a traditional Irish dance, is a vision of rural virtue and a pastoral ideal far removed from the reality of poverty. But did idealization of the West mean that to be truly Irish was to be poor living in the country? Some artists sought to rehabilitate the reality of Irish poverty that had led to massive emigration in the nineteenth century. But while ennobling those who had remained behind, they often overlooked the crushing poverty and unemployment in Ireland's cities.

The use of archetypally Irish themes, coming at the time of the struggle for independence, civil war, and early nationhood, was clearly a desire to redefine the visual arts in Ireland. Drawing on the Celtic revival movement, these artists sought to create an Irish "school" distinct from the more traditional influences of the Royal Hibernian Academy, adapting international styles to create distinct Irish artistic vocabulary. Still the influences of England and history remained strong. The painting of Henry and Keating, to name just two examples, is defined as much by the English influence it implicitly rejects as by its choice of a landscape thought to be resistant to foreign corruption.


Overt political subjects also became a preoccupation of many artists. Keating's Men of the South (1921), for example, depicts a "flying column" of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an antecedent of the Irish Republican Army. Showing its subjects as heroes of the nation, Men of the South is traditional history painting as well as a disturbing portrayal of essentially a terrorist group that distances its followers' responsibility from their violence. Such images are perhaps even more troubling today as murder and violence preys on the innocent in Ireland. An exception is Sir John Lavery's portrait of an Irish hero on his deathbed, Michael Collins (Love of Ireland). Lavery's emphasis lies on the loss of the charismatic hero of the Easter Rising of 1916, and speaks more of his admiration for Collins and the artist's role as mediator between the British and the Republicans. Jack Yeats also invoked Irish heroism and nationalism while distancing himself from its overt political manifestation. His Going to Wolfe Tone's Grave of 1929 is inscribed in the politics of Republicanism by its reference to the "father" of Irish nationalism, the hero of the failed uprising in 1798. Yet the political here resides in memory rather than justifying violence in the present.

Independence came in 1922 in the form of partition, in which the "Fourth Province" of Protestant-dominated Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom. Partition solved nothing. The more extreme Republicans saw it as capitulation to the British. And Unionists (those who wished to remain loyal to Britain) saw the partition as a failure of British will. In the new Republic, divided opinion between the so-called Treatyites and those who opposed partition led to years of violent civil war in the newly independent Republic.

Return to Influences from Abroad

The resolution of the border and partition inaugurated a new era -- an era with its own parallels in painting. Yeats's painting Going to Wolfe Tone's Grave also marks a new beginning, a return to a stylistic internationalism. With a less restrained palette, Yeats pays respect to the stylistic language of German expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s, a style that would prove to be enormously influential for a later generation of Irish painters in the seventies and eighties.

Other Irish artists at midcentury adapted international styles to Irish subjects. Louis le Brocquy, whose early work was heavily influenced by Eduard Manet and Edgar Degas, adapted their compositional and painterly styles to Irish subjects. His painting A Picnic of 1940 has strong echoes of Manet in line and Degas in arrangement. Such work brought progressive Irish painting into the mainstream of European art.

Mainie Jellett, one of a number of influential midcentury Irish women artists, introduced Picasso and cubism to Ireland. Jellett's works merge European influences with a distinct return to Irish subject matter, specifically religious. This trend also characterizes a number of Irish women artists (including Beatrice Elvery and Mary Swanzy). Jellett's Virgin and Child suggests the historical importance of Catholicism in Ireland and the continuing interest in the role of women in Irish society. But more than that, woman often appears as a symbol of the nation, a kind of maternal metaphor in the work of many artists of both sexes.

Irish Painting at Midcentury

At midcentury Irish painting was at a crossroads. Irish painters were taking different paths. The art of Colin Middleton, for example, drew its strength from a sense of postwar angst and a flirtation with the unsettling emotional world of surrealism. Like Middleton, Patrick Hennessy, in works such as Exiles of 1943, merges an air of mysticism with allusions to the continuing legacy of emigration and its deep fissures in Irish society.

Exile and alienation seem almost natural states for Irish artists at midcentury. Dan O'Neill's 1952 painting Birth honors the role of women in Irish society, yet it also suggests an oppressive scene in which life itself is squeezed and forlorn. When Irish subject matter appears, as in Nano Reid's Tinkers at Slieve Breagh, it often identifies with rural poverty. Cumulatively, such works addressed the entrenched poverty in Ireland at midcentury, as artists saw their country being left behind by a general postwar European economic recovery.

The Historical and Heroic

The theme of heroism in Irish painting and history gradually emerged in the later 1960s. Louis le Brocquy turned to new subject matter with historical and heroic antecedents. Likewise, the painter Robert Ballagh turned to a series of portraits of Irish literary and artistic figures associated with Irish Republicanism.

One of the strongest and most provocative paintings to address Ireland's bitter history came in 1977 with Michael Farrell's Madonna Irlanda, subtitled The Very First Real Irish Political Picture. Uniting disparate elements drawn from the history of art -- with overt references to both Leonardo da Vinci and François Boucher -- the painting is a metaphor of Ireland corrupted into a state of quasi-prostitution by its continuing partition and a sense of national and cultural subservience.

Paintings dating from the period of the Troubles -- which began in 1968 -- are political almost without exception. They are painted by artists who have chosen to remain in a divided nation punctuated by politically motivated violence. Such a decision has often come with a cost, for commercial opportunities for artists in Ulster and the Republic were minimal until recently.

Ironically, the Troubles have provided a rich source of inspiration for artists. Consequently, Irish painting has a vitality and energy today that is rarely seen in American and European art. David Crone for many years painted scenes of violence observed directly outside his Belfast studio. Rita Duffy paints autobiographic scenes depicting Irish oppression at the hands of a lingering separation. Dermot Seymour paints the bitter contrast of the ever-present military in the idyllic Irish countryside. James Hanley, the youngest artist in the exhibition, invests his painting with a powerful combination of icons derived from the Church and Ireland's history. Patrick Graham's work, characterized as "darkly brooding, tortured and torn paintings depicting a traumatized psychic terrain riven by guilt, sorrow and anger," merges an expressionism that harkens back to German painting between the wars with Jack Yeats's use of politically potent icons of Irish culture and Irish heroes.

Cosmopolitan influences in Irish painting are often seen as a form of cultural emigration and cultural domination. Those artists who resisted outside influences have often sought consciously to invoke links between the individual, the community, and the Irish landscape. By contrast the search for what is thought to be authentically "Irish" often derives largely out of opposition to English culture.

While Celtic Ireland is older than English Ireland, Celtic Ireland's culture in modern history has also been weaker -- even as it exercises a stronger influence on writers and to a somewhat lesser extent visual artists. In a land defined by cultural and religious opposition this may be inevitable. Ireland is two lands, two regions, two cultures, and two peoples. This duality makes it difficult to identify a specifically Irish aesthetic in twentieth-century and contemporary art. Ironically, Ireland's recent economic successes suggest that its distinct and ancient Celtic culture may become only more vestigial. In the end, what may come to define the Irishness of Irish painting is not a cohesive cultural statement, but a vocabulary of differences.

About the Author

Funding Information

This article is adapted from the introduction to the exhibition catalog for "When Time Began to Rant and Rage" by James Christen Steward, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

The University of California, Berkeley, received $250,942 in grants to help produce the exhibition.