The Irishness of Irish Painting

By Steward, James Christen | Humanities, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Irishness of Irish Painting


Steward, James Christen, Humanities


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.

F-ai\V 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 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. Yet, 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 fire 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 tire, with her arm on a Celtic harp, the national symbol of independent Ireland.

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 tire 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 Sean 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. …

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