Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

A Troublesome 'Genre'? Histories, Definitions and Perceptions of Paintings of Everyday Life from Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

A Troublesome 'Genre'? Histories, Definitions and Perceptions of Paintings of Everyday Life from Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Article excerpt

In 1813 the Dublin-based artist Joseph Peacock (c.1783 - 1837) exhibited an expansive canvas entitled The Patron of the Seven Churches, on the Festival of St. Kevin, in the Vale of Glendalough, Co. Wicklow (fig. 1) at the Society of Artists of the City of Dublin annual exhibition. The painting, which was later exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1817 and at the British Institution in 1818, details a wide range of community activities taking place amidst the imposing scenery of the Wicklow Mountains. In the distance a round tower presides over the cluttered scene, its dominance in the landscape exaggerated by the artist for added effect.

Peacock's painting, which is now in the Ulster Museum,1 depicts a traditional devotional gathering called a 'Pattern Day' that happened at this site on the 3rd of June every year to commemorate the patron-saint of Glendalough, St. Kevin. His canvas is filled with over a hundred figures; some of are singing, dancing and enjoying the celebrations associated with the day, while others are capitalising on the commercial aspect of the Pattem by trading their wares and produce. Throughout the crowd all walks of Irish life are present, from blind beggars and itinerant musicians to regimental officers and elite spectators on horseback. All of this activity is placed among the mins of the monastic city founded by St. Kevin in the seventh century. Rolling, threatening clouds provide a backdrop to the glacial valley and cast suitably dramatic lighting effects over the scene.

Much can be learned about the activities of traditional, local Pattern Days from this image. For instance, in 1986 William Crawford used the image as a visual source for the history of this type of festival and the folk-practices associated with it in his descriptive article for Ulster Folklife.2 Similarly, Mairead Dunlevy used the painting in her investigations into the history of costume and dress in nineteenthcentury Ireland.3

Whilst the image has proved very useful to historians of folk-practice or material culture, for the art historian it actually raises more questions than it answers: why was a little-known artist painting such a large scale picture of Irish life at this time? Why did a demand for this type of art exist? And ultimately, what does the painting reveal about practices of spectatorship in early nineteenth-century Ireland?

In spite of the range of questions that the picture raises, it has never been subjected to an intense art historical interrogation.4 Indeed, its scholarly treatment to date provides an insight into the historiography of early nineteenth-century painting in Ireland in general. As part of this collection of essays that examine the writing of Irish art history, the aim of this article is to investigate the limitations of this historiography and to offer some suggestions as to how the history of painting in early nineteenth-century Ireland can be re-examined and reassessed. By using the case-study of one artwork (The Patron of the Seven Churches) its focus will specifically be on the art of everyday life and the perception of it among art historians, critics and audiences over the past two centuries. A clearer understanding of how the art of daily life was consumed in early nineteenth-century Ireland can be developed by clarifying confused definitions, by moving away from connoisseurial or biographical methodologies and by looking at works of art from the perspective of the audience rather than the artist.

In contrast to the treatment of this type of painting by art historians in Ireland, the everyday as a phenomenon in early nineteenth-century British art has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years. Major interventions by scholars such as John Barrell, Christiana Payne and David Solkin have interrogated the everyday aesthetic in the paintings of George Morland, David Wilkie and Thomas Heaphy.5 In his seminal text The Dark Side of the Landscape: the rural poor in English paintings, 1730-1840 (1980), Barrell assessed paintings of the rural poor by Thomas Gainsborough, Morland and John Constable as pictorial evidence of the hierarchical social system that existed in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. …

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