Fifty Years of Irish Painting 1900-1950
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It would probably be wrong to say that the John Butler Yeats-Nathaniel Hone Exhibition organised by Sarah Purser was the beginning of it all. It would probably be wrong also to say that Hugh Lane began it. It is probably not enough even to say that it began when Yeats and Hone found themselves showing the young Lane round their exhibition — if they did show him round. For, in those days about 1900, Lane who, at the age of twenty-three, was paying his first visit as a grown man to his aunt, Augusta Gregory, and to his country, Ireland, was conceited enough not to be likely to be tolerant of any artist who would "explain" his pictures to him. And John Butler Yeats, then aged sixty, was proud, though he was not the kind of man to be put down, or prevented from talking when he wanted to talk, by any youth, — least of all one who, like Lane, had rather more than his share of the self-assurance of those "in the trade" — even if he was a nephew of Augusta Gregory. Nathaniel Hone, on the other hand, who painted in an Olympian retirement and made hardly any effort to make his pictures known in Ireland — and none at all to make them known in Great Britain — would simply not be interested in the unknown youth's views. And yet that situation, with the sixty year old Yeats and the youthful Lane probably arguing against each other, and Hone mute in the background, that situation does somehow suggest itself as the inevitable point of departure of the modern Irish school of painting.
Immediately outside was the Ireland of Dublin Castle, a little world that was as English as it knew how to be and as anti-Irish as it dared to be. Further off, though not so far in 1900 as in earlier times, was the real Ireland, as Irish as it knew how to be and as anti-English as it dared to be. The Ireland of Dublin Castle was the Ireland that could afford to pay for the fine arts, but apart from that, it had nothing in the way of stimulus to give to an artist. And though it could afford to pay for the fine arts it seldom did pay — except for effigies of itself in the shape of academy portraits. Its Dublin was, in the words of Dr. C. P. Curran, "a viceregal Dublin whose vaunted wealth and intelligence permitted Nathaniel Hone to give up showing his pictures at the R.H.A.; turned Walter Osborne from his true path to the flattery of portrait-painting; and where the art-patronage of a Lord Cadogan (the Queen of England's viceroy in Ireland), was limited to winning a picture on a five-shilling Art Union ticket." (See Dr. Curran's article, A Note on Michael Healy in The Capuchin Annual for 1944.) The further-off Ireland, which might be called the Dublin Corporation Ireland as against the Dublin Castle Ireland, could not so well afford to pay for the fine arts, but it could provide an artist with everything in the way of stimulus. Its gods were not the gods of the high places. Its life was lowly, at times to the point of desperation and tragedy, but it was often heroic, and always it tended to be colourful. [p.498]
The question then was how to establish a position at which the artist could take inspiration where inspiration was to be found, and yet find a market for his completed work. Following his visits, first to his aunt's house at Coole, and then to the Yeats-Hone Exhibition at 7, St. Stephen's Green, Lane resolved to act as a deus ex machina , for the time being at least. He commissioned Yeats to paint a series of portraits — twenty was the number he contemplated — of outstanding Irishmen, Dublin Corporation Irishmen as well as Dublin Castle Irishmen, of the time. He bought several Hone landscapes outright, and so that Irish painting should be known outside of Ireland he presented one of them to the Luxembourg Gallery in Paris and another to the National Gallery of Scotland. He began to imagine that a whole modern Irish school of painting might develop. He began to dream of a Dublin gallery of modern painting, and he set to work to stir up interest in the idea amongst his influential acquaintances in every class of society, wheedling, coaxing, appealing to them, whether they were Dublin Castle or Dublin Corporation, Unionist Party men, Irish Party men or Labour Party men, Carson, the class agitator at one end, Larkin, the mass agitator at the other, and in the middle, helping Lane, as it were, to hold the balance, Alderman Tom Kelly. The women worked no less hard than the men, Augusta Gregory of course, already active in the Irish-Ireland literary and dramatic movement; Constance Markievicz, painter and revolutionary; Celia Harrison, an artist and at the same time a member of the Dublin Corporation, and mindful always of the patriotic obligations involved in her kinship with Henry Joy MacCracken, the leader of the United Irishmen in the north a hundred years earlier; and Ellie Duncan, a pianist, married to a Dublin Castle official. (Jim Duncan was a man who had no head for politics, but he had a heart of gold and in his unobtrusive way he worked as hard for Lane as his wife did — just as, at a later date, while talking ruefully of the state to which "those dashed Shinners" were reducing the country, he did endless good turns for political prisoners at the behest of friends who, he could hardly help knowing, though he acted as if he didn't know, were themselves important in the Sinn Féin movement.)
The truth was that Lane, in his sensitive way, had caught something of the poetry of the Irish Revival. He was no longer the conceited young man "in the trade." Now with the magic of poetry about him he was able to put a spell on public-spirited people everywhere. Instead of remaining the smart young salesman he became rather the most generously energetic of volunteer lay workers. Often, he drove the others hard, but when they did get time to relax they could realise that it was a privilege to be working for Ireland and for Irish art in the company of such a man. I remember hearing Mrs. Duncan recalling a day in Belfast — for Lane helped Belfast art-lovers too — when, in a hotel bedroom she felt fit to drop with fatigue over her typewriter while Hugh Lane and Jim were, as she thought, much more enjoyably flying around outside from picture owners to picture framers and from picture framers to museum authorities. But in the evening they were as tired as she, and then Lane insisted that she and Jim must have the best dinner that Belfast provided — while he, contenting himself with a dish of soup and a glass of wine, talked eagerly of further things that might be done for the great scheme. Again, it was only the other day that Mr. Sharkey, the chief attendant at the Municipal Gallery told me of a morning after the modern art gallery had become a fait accompli when, on his way to Harcourt Street, he overtook Lane carry- [p.499] ing a large framed picture and, as he would, being as thoughtful for others as Lane himself, volunteered to carry it. "I hope I'm as well able to carry it as you are," said Lane and went on talking about something that had to be done when they reached the gallery and without further reference to his load. When Lane was in South Africa one Christmas there were Christmas presents and Christmas cards for Mr. Sharkey and his assistant. And again when Lane was in Spain there were cards to show he thought of them, and there were little keepsakes for them when he came home.
Meantime in the background John Butler Yeats had begun painting the Irish portraits, commissioned portraits. And after John Butler Yeats, William Orpen. And Hone, though not painting to order, knew that Lane would take a practical, material interest, as well as an art-lover's interest, in what he was doing, and knew too that Lane's friends would be only delighted to tell the world, with the authority Lane's name gave them, that he, Hone, was as fine a painter as he knew himself to be. Ireland and Ireland's artists had become an inspiration to Lane. And Lane's faith heightened the faith of every single one of his fellow-workers.
Though we may take all that stir about 1900 as the beginning of Dublin as a centre of modern Irish art, it is, of course, understood that Ireland, Irish Ireland, had its painters for many a long year before. Even the artists whom economic necessity had driven to London had, before they left, and time and time again after they left, turned to their own origins for inspiration. As evidence we have only to recall James Barry's Harper dating from the eighteenth century, the Irish landscapes of George Barrett of about the same time and those of James Arthur O'Connor painted in the first half of the nineteenth century; and, then and later, works by Archer Shee, Mulready, Maclise and Frederick Burton; all at the National Gallery. Nor are Petrie's water-colour studies of Clonmacnoise and other scenes evocative of Ireland's own specific traditions to be overlooked. There had been Haverty and there had been Michael Brennan. Even the Yorkshire artist Catterson-Smith, who did not see Ireland till he was thirty-four and did not settle in Dublin till he was forty, felt impelled to paint a picture of his daughter as the heroine of the heroically virtuous Ireland of Rich and Rare. The position was, in fact, that the roots were already planted. It was the flower and the fruit that were being looked for and worked for in the years following 1900.
If we attempt to estimate the quality as artists of the outstanding Irish painters at the turn of the century, we find that John Butler Yeats has to be ranked with the greatest men of his time in any country. As a portrait painter he may indeed come to be regarded as the greatest of all. Driven by circumstance to spend years at a time in London, he remained too much and too consciously the Irishman to be able to fit in with either the Pre-Raphaelites or the Academics of England. Unlike the Academics, he brought poetry to the interpretation of reality. Unlike the Pre-Raphaelites he gave a maximum of reality to poetry. And, needless to say, the poetry and the reality of his work militated against its popularity in the world that could afford to pay for art. John Butler Yeats was always a painters' painter. In portraiture he had nothing of the inflation, the tendency to rhetoric, that lessens our pleasure in even some of the more impressive portrait studies of G. F. Watts and Millais. In his genre studies, such as The Bird Market, on the other hand, Yeats avoids stylisation and is as scrupulously objective as he is poetic. At all times he was easily and beautifully [p.500] plastic. Perhaps the contemporary artist nearest akin to him was the French portrait-painter, Ricard. But Yeats has more strength than Ricard. If Renoir had been a regular, instead of only an occasional, portrait-painter, we might find many affinities between them. As it is, I can think of no child's portrait of the period except one or two by Renoir that, temperamentally and technically I should rank with Yeats's Jack B. Yeats As A Boy at the National Gallery, and a study of Miss Dowden at the Age of Eleven. I can still remember the astonishment of a conservateur of the Louvre whom, once, without any warning, I led into the room in London where the latter picture hung. I said nothing but it took him no more than a second to pick it out with eager interest and generous praise from amongst many beautiful things there. And he, who thought he knew modern painting everywhere, grew thoughtful when I told him the picture came from Ireland.
Unlike John Butler Yeats, Nathaniel Hone lived in affluence and was able to spend years and years studying and painting in Paris. His early artistic affinities were with the great painters of the Barbizon School who were his associates and friends. But he visited Italy — where he made a noble copy of Titian's Sacred and Profane Love which is now in a private collection in Galway and which makes it clear that he might have been a great figure painter had he so wished — and Holland, to which country he was drawn, I have no doubt, by the great landscape art of Jacob Ruysdael. Perhaps Hone should not be regarded as an innovator. Certainly, he would seem to have been trying, through the greater part of his life, rather to recapture the temper and technique of the finest landscape artists of the past. His picture of the Roman viaduct near Nîmes, for instance, though as a work of art it unquestionably exists in its own right, has certain pictures by Joseph Vernet and Hubert Robert in the Louvre for its ancestors. And in the solemn grandeur of the works of his maturity, painted in Ireland, and in which he may truly be considered to have found himself, he is very near to the temper of Ruysdael. But he is never the imitator. On the one hand, he tended to eliminate even such humanist notes as Ruysdael, preoccupied mainly with the sombre splendour of the natural scene, yet felt bound to retain, the distant church spire the lowly peasant or herdsman by the stream or on the rural path. On the other hand, Hone does not, as Cézanne does, shift the emphasis from light itself to the forms upon which the light plays. Cézanne marked the return to Poussin. Hone held rather to the traditional landscape line that began as a background to the figures in the work of the French miniaturists at the end of the fourteenth century and that was continued by the French, Flemish and Renaissance Italians, but that only became an art genre in itself with Claude Lorraine. Nor, until his very last years at least, does Hone seem to have taken any interest in the technical innovations of the Impressionists. There is, in a private collection in Dublin, a study for the Dublin Municipal Gallery picture of a row of trees, where one suspects that the technical significance of the works by the Impressionist masters that Hugh Lane brought to Dublin was not lost on the octogenarian great painter. And there may be others. But, essentially, the qualities that set Hone apart in the history of modern landscape painting are his Olympian spaciousness of composition, and his mastery, within the range he allowed himself, of pure colour. He would doubtless have hated to be called "brilliant". He would probably have shrunk from the brilliance of Van Gogh as, in music, [p.501] Brahms shrank from the brilliance of Wagner, but if his colour does not dazzle, there is, nevertheless, no denying the austere purity and beauty of it.
Alongside of Yeats and Hone, the outstanding Irish painter at the beginning of the century was Walter Osborne, a landscape and genre artist of sensibility and distinction. For the usual reasons he was forced to do a certain amount of academic portrait painting, to try to produce, instead of works of art, those life-size — full-length, half-length and head-and-shoulders — human effigies, of which little more in the way of pictorial quality or human appeal was expected than that they should fit in with the heavily opulent and tasteless furniture that had become characteristic of the homes of the upper and upper-middle classes in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
In France, where the Zeitgeist tends always to reveal itself first, the breach between the upholders of the officially acceptable commonplace in art, and the true heirs to the great tradition in painting, had become an open breach during the Second Empire. It is, incidentally, to the credit of the Emperor Napoleon III that, practically alone amongst the royal and imperial personages in the Europe of the time, he recognised the possibility of professional parti-pris on the side of the academicians, and, insisting that the lay public must be given access to the work of the Impressionists and freedom to judge for itself, instituted the Salon des Refusés for them. The consequent triumph of the Impressionists and their methods is a matter of history.
Osborne pursued his continental studies in Antwerp. Had he gone to Paris instead, he would doubtless have come to Impressionism earlier. As it is, we must be glad that in his maturer years he often went to France on painting tours and consciously or unconsciously adopted the Impressionist technique to a degree that makes it not only possible but necessary to classify him historically as belonging to the new school. From the point of view of painting in Ireland he has to be regarded as something at least of an innovator. In his last works especially, the search for verisimilitude in representing the play of light on and amongst the forms that make up the natural scene, by the juxtaposition of colours in a manner approximating to that of the Impressionists, is quite marked. It would be wrong, however, to regard Osborne as a mere technician. His delicate technique was evolved in order to express his sensitive approach to the subject, both in landscape and figure painting, with the maximum of effect. It is for that sensitive approach that we value Osborne. And it is because that sensitive approach was too intimate to be expressible in the larger works which had to conform to the canons of academic portraiture that we turn from those "grandes machines" (even when they show a degree of refinement and taste rare in the genre), to less pretentious canvases where the poetic integrity of the artist comes through clearly and unmistakably.
Meantime Sarah Henrietta Purser had, for years, enjoyed great popularity as a portrait painter. A woman of energy, shrewdness and some material resources, she had given herself the advantage of a Parisian training. And though her natural talents as an artist were limited, they were yet sufficiently pronounced and sufficiently unusual in a woman of her generation to command attention. So she had gone through the British aristocracy in England and Ireland "like the measles" as she said herself. Again, though she tended rather to submit to influences than to evolve to an integrated artistic personality of her own, so [p.502] that we can follow her different phases, the J. B. Yeats phase, the Hone, the Bastien Lepage, the Manet and even, as in the Jane Barlow portrait at Charlemont House, the Orchardson, nevertheless the vigour of her attack gives vitality to her work and if it was sometimes common, as in the portrait of a Viscount Powerscourt at the National Portrait Gallery, which she once described appropriately to me as "the dead spit" of the subject, it could also at times be sensitive and appealing, as in the Barlow portrait which was painted out of genuine affection.
More important than her painted work, however, (which after all was the sort of thing that would have had to be done by somebody), was Sarah Purser's enterprise in initiating with Edward Martyn the movement — in view of its results it may legitimately be described as the great movement — to re-establish the true art of stained glass painting in Ireland. There is no reason to assume that the legendarily beautiful stained glass that still survived in Ireland, most notably at Kilkenny, up to the descent on this country of Oliver Cromwell and his destroying soldiery in 1649, was not the work of Irish artists. But during the centuries-long period of the Penal Laws the output of ecclesiastical art inevitably ceased. On the advice of John Hughes, the sculptor, Sarah Purser invited Michael Healy, a young painter newly returned from a couple of years study abroad, mostly in Italy, to take up stained glass painting at her new workshop An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass). That was in 1903, and beginning with Healy, there have been stained glass artists of international stature in Ireland ever since. It should be noted about Healy that though he continued to paint in oils and did some sympathetic work in that medium, it was always a spare time occupation and absorbed little of his unusual powers of invention, whereas in stained glass and also in his drawings, (which were, often in the nature of statements, sometimes very passionate statements, on the subject of national events), he must be ranked as an original artist of forceful and invariably poetic genius.
With less dash than Sarah Purser, Sarah Celia Harrison, a pupil of Alphonse Legros and a disciple of John Butler Yeats, produced portraits that, at their best, have the quality of statements in distinguished prose about her subjects. Sometimes, where the subject did not interest her, even her meticulously painstaking methods fail to satisfy, but for the most part her work has one of the essential qualities of true portraiture, it is scrupulously, fastidiously, honest, which means that it has lasting value as human documentation.
Patrick Vincent Duffy stood in a somewhat similar relation to Hone as Celia Harrison and Sarah Purser in relation to John Yeats. His work as a landscape painter always showed a feeling for spacious and dignified composition. But otherwise he tended to follow the trodden ways. Unlike Sarah Purser, however, who, notably in her Manet phase, showed a susceptibility to the influence of the revolutionary technical methods of the contemporary Paris school, Duffy continued in the academic way, so that his colour, put on evenly and unbrokenly, tends to be dull, lacking in freshness — which is obviously an even greater drawback in landscape than in other painting genres. Even without vivacity of colour, however, the positive qualities of his work will continue to command respect for it.
A more popular landscape painter of those days, Alexander Williams, would be almost forgotten now, were it not that his feeling for the pittoresque in nature, overstated in his large canvases, is expressed effortlessly in some of his smaller works, which, as a consequence [p.503] retain, unexpectedly after all the years of eclipse, a touch of something very like genuine lyrical quality.
Walter Osborne was only the chief of the Irish contingent at the Antwerp school of art teaching. There was Allan whose work had at least episodic merit and there was Osborne's close friend and associate, J. M. Kavanagh, whose pictures are, at any rate, of sufficient merit frequently to be taken for works by the better-known painter. I even have the word of a contemporary whose opinion I value that Kavanagh had a wider range and more solid qualities than Walter Osborne. But neither Allan nor Kavanagh is sufficiently well represented in our public collections for it to be possible to form an adequate estimate of their achievement. The same remark holds true for other esteemed painters of the period. But in the case of Kavanagh it is doubtful whether later generations will ever be able to gain a just idea of his quality, for he was Keeper of the Hibernian Academy and lived in the Academy premises in Abbey Street, so that the many of his own pictures which remained in his possession were destroyed when the building was burned down in the fires that followed the bombardment of Dublin by British artillery during the Rising of 1916.
Another close friend of Osborne's, in the Antwerp days and afterwards, was Dermod O'Brien, who lived until the other day. In his last years Dermod O'Brien lost some ground to the younger generation of portrait painters. This slight eclipse has affected the public attitude to the value of his work, not only in portraiture but in landscape — which fact should be a warning to painters who let themselves get caught in the competition for portrait commissions, for there is always a younger generation behind them and the day of their merely fashionable prestige must inevitably come to an end. Actually Dermod O'Brien was a landscape painter of invariable accomplishment and sometimes of genuine distinction. As time goes on I think it will be realised that he had a peculiar gift for stamping the natural scene with some quality of Irishness that is not a matter of mere accessories such as boreens, bawns, and thatched white-washed cabins, but of sensitivity to the unique clarity of the Irish atmosphere — itself probably due to a combination of causes, latitude, sea-air, frequent rain. However it be, I have heard artists say that only in the neighbouring south-west of Scotland and in the valleys on the northern side of the Alps is anything like the same kind of clarity of atmosphere as prevails in Ireland to be found. And I know of no artist who has rendered that clarity of atmosphere more faithfully than Dermod O'Brien has done in certain of the landscapes he painted round his home in County Limerick. He was, of course, a conservative artist and stuck to the technique that he learned in Antwerp and mastered as the years went on. Here and there one notices something that looks like a passing reference to Hone (whom Dermod O'Brien venerated), but this may be mere coincidence, for Antwerp accepted the methods of the Barbizon painters, and Barbizon was, of course, Hone's point of departure. John Ruskin was Dermod O'Brien's first drawing master and the Ruskin influence is, perhaps, traceable in the painter's easily conscientious treatment of foliage. But Ruskin had little sense of the fact that the beauty of a great artist's drawing is an inherent quality and does not depend for its effect on mere resemblance to the object represented. Nor would Dermod O'Brien seem to have discovered the fact for himself later on. And here, I think, is where he disappoints. I know charming figure pictures by him, but too frequently he lost or forgot beauty of drawing in the search for a more accurate [p.504] "likeness." It is important to remember about Dermod O'Brien, however, that the examples of his work which are to be seen in our public collections are not, for the most part, the finest. The best of his pictures are still in private hands.
An artist of the next generation, but who, through her technique deserves to be grouped with those of her distinguished elders whom I have been discussing, was Clare Marsh. At all times, even after he went to live in America, Miss Marsh sought the advice of John Butler Yeats and the rich yet delicate texture of her painting owes not a little to his example and his precept. She died relatively young and while she lived had to give a great deal of her time to teaching so that examples of her work are rather scarce, but not only was her handling of paint notably good but also she approached her subject, as her great master did, in a temper that was unfailingly gracious and often poetic to such a degree that one needs to be in a room with even a small Clare Marsh picture for only a very little time before becoming instinctively aware of a sympathetic presence.
An unprofessional painter of the time who calls for some attention was George W. Russell (Æ). He studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art but too little for it to become possible for him properly to overcome his innate lack of a sense of form in either landscape or the figure. "I am only a gifted amateur," Æ would modestly declare in his later years. And it was true. But he really was gifted, in the sense that all his canvases, or nearly all, showed some sense of a world imminent or transcendent but certainly other than the world of immediate physical appearance, and expressed that sense, if not with mastery, at least with easy assurance. If his pictures were no more than a gesture towards the world of poetic vision, they were at least that, and the gesture was made with conviction. The difficulty was that, co-operative organiser, politician, journalist, philosopher, seer, poet, dramatist, painter, Æ was content to be a jack of all trades and master of none. Certainly he lacked the capacity for concentrated work that would have enabled him to give definitive pictorial form to whatever flashes of vision he had, and so his pictures remain adumbrated rather than realised works of art, reflections of the work of the two painters who influenced him most, Gustave Moreau and Monticelli, rather than restatements of the Moreau and Monticelli positions in terms of the world in which Æ lived.
The sixty years of Irish emigration that followed the Famine of the late eighteen-forties had, by now, produced a distinctive and substantial Irish element in the population of London. The London-Irish, through the Irish Literary Society, the Gaelic League, the Gaelic Athletic Association and other bodies, were an articulate group. And a fashionable London painter like John Lavery might proclaim his Irishness openly and yet not jeopardise his position in the London art world. Indeed Hugh Lane, in his eager way succeeded in persuading London artists who were much further removed from their Irish origins than Lavery, Charles Shannon, for instance, and the American-born J. J. Shannon and the landscape painter, Mark Fisher, American-born too, to claim to be Irish painters. But Lavery was Irish born and bred. He had begun his painting career as a member of the Glasgow "school," but as the years went on and his fame grew on both sides of the Atlantic he insisted more and more on his Irishness. He visited Ireland regularly. Ultimately, he settled in Ireland and died at home. In a certain sense the Irish implications of his career were paralleled by those of his younger [p.505] contemporary and friend, John McCormack, in music. Both of them moved as recognised great artists in the highest circles of the cosmopolitan art world. And though they were happy to proclaim themselves Irish, it was inevitable that they should, in their work as in their lives, have to concede a good deal to cosmopolitanism. It would be foolish not to admit that, to the degree that concession had to be made, the Irishness of their work lost its edge and salt. But this is the price that the artists of all nations who conquer the international art world have to pay. Padrewski in music, Lazlo in painting, Charles Boyer in films, it holds for them all. Even Sarah Bernhardt whom, in our youth, we were taught to regard as the greatest French actress of her time, is not allowed that rank by Parisians, who delighted in the acting of the more stay-at-home Madame Barthet. While allowing for the reserve, therefore, we need not, nevertheless, hesitate to accept Lavery as an Irish artist. And looking at the great collection of his paintings that he bequeathed to the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art — the beautiful gallery that Lane and his friends ultimately succeeded in founding — we cannot but be stirred by the fact that a talent such as his, lacking intimacy but showing a sure mastery of the generalised statement, of rhetoric and of pageantry, was so often applied to subjects of specifically Irish significance.
An Irish artist of perhaps greater power and technical brilliance but not so much heart, William Orpen, associated himself with the early stages of the modern Irish art movement in Dublin. Orpen may even be considered as having founded a school. As a student in Dublin his virtuosity was already the talk of the town. Later he went to London, where, with Ambrose MacEvoy — a distinguished artist and lovable man who, in spite of his name and in spite of his avowed Irish sympathies, we must relinquish to the English school, since he neither lived nor studied in Ireland and did not concern himself with Irish subjects — with MacEvoy and with the Welshman, Augustus John, Orpen was recognised as a leader of what the Slade School considers as its "great generation." Orpen then returned to Dublin to teach at the Metropolitan School of Art and to take up the painting of the series of portraits of prominent Irishmen commissioned by Lane when John Butler Yeats left off. Orpen had an incisive (rather than a beautiful) line and a great technical mastery of anatomy, so that such portraits of his as the Davitt and William O'Brien at the Municipal Gallery and The Dead Ptarmigan, (in which the figure is a self-portrait), at the National Portrait Gallery, have more power than charm. The Dead Ptarmigan derives, of course, from a famous Rembrandt at the Dresden Gallery, but the hard handling is nearer to Frans Hals than to Rembrandt and nearer, perhaps, to Ribera than to Hals. Orpen was, in fact, very much influenced by the masters of past ages, but more in the matter of technique than in qualities of mind, imagination and heart. I believe that in conversation he readily acknowledged his technical debt to the St. Procopius of Ribera in Merrion Square, but though Ribera was a realist amongst realists, I doubt whether he ever came down to the level of intellectual banality which, only too frequently and more especially in his later years, was all the matter behind Orpen's brilliant manner. Again, there are people who consider that the background to Orpen's Western Wedding marked an epoch in the representation of a typically Irish landscape. But in spite of the white-washed cabins and the nearby seashore, it seems to me to be as much an amusingly clever [p.506] improvisation on the theme with which, nearly 500 years ago, the landscape round Arezzo provided Piero della Francesca for his Baptism in Jordan, now at the English National Gallery, as it is a reminiscence of the Irish scene. In fact it would seem that Orpen was too often the academician, the prodigiously clever student, doing conventional things with a skill to raise the cockles of an art master's heart, and too seldom the true artist with something personal to say and evolving a personal technique in order to say it with the maximum of effect. Of his cleverness and his brilliance as an academic painter, however, there can be no question and the loyalty to his memory of those of our painters who studied with him is natural — and, in the sphere of standard technique in painting, fully justified. On the positive side, one might say of the prominent painters of the present day who studied under Orpen and who, on the technical level, show the benefit of his instruction, that Mr. Whelan is perhaps nearest to his master in sheer skill; that, in composition, Miss Fox remains very close to him; that, without the incisive draughtsmanship, Mr. Sleator has more taste than his master; that Mr. Keating has more feeling for decoration; Mrs. Clarke more sensibility in characterisation; Lady Glenavy more fantasy; Mrs. Scally more intimacy; and Miss Perrot more lyricism.
But the late Patrick Tuohy, who died in New York twenty years ago, at the age of thirty-six, was the Orpen student whose work shows that, for him, the Orpen technique was no more than a point of departure for a journey into a world of experience that gave him imaginative understanding, of the spirit as well as of the technique, of such widely differing artists of the great tradition as Puvis de Chavannes and Velazquez and ultimately an artistic personality of his own. Tuohy's death was an incalculable loss to modern Irish art. (See the short essay on him by the present writer in The Father Mathew Record for July, 1943.)
Meantime, side by side with the rise or Orpen and the Orpen academic, the genius of modern Ireland's greatest imaginative artist was developing. An artist's son, Jack B. Yeats could draw before he could write, and though he duly mastered what the art schools had to teach him, no art school could have taught him to do what, at no age at all, he set out, consciously or unconsciously, most probably consciously and unconsciously together, to do, which was to give expression, first in drawing, then in watercolour and finally in oil painting, to the spirit, to the poetry, of the Ireland he had come to know, to appreciate and to love, even as he was drawing it during his childhood and boyhood in Sligo. It was not that Jack B. Yeats ever tried to be "original." On the contrary, no artist has ever had greater respect for other men's achievement. As soon as he could afford to travel he went to Venice, the first Mecca of all lovers of the art of painting in oils, and to Paris, which was, of course, the headquarters of modern painting. Nor did he neglect to study the collection of French Impressionists which, with the permanent collection, was on loan for several years at the new modern art gallery in Dublin, but which went later — the story of the transfer is a byword — to the Tate Gallery in London. All those eagerly undertaken excursions and studies were, however, but grist to the mill of an ambition that was driving Jack B. Yeats, always, tenaciously and unerringly, towards his ultimate goal. And to realise how richly that ambition was fulfilled, one has only to recall the great National Loan Exhibition of paintings by Jack B. Yeats which, in 1945, was opened at the National College of Art in Dublin, in the presence [p.507] of Mr. Sean T. O'Kelly, now President of Ireland, the then Taoiseach and members of the government and leading representatives of the Irish nation in every walk of life, an exhibition to which, Sunday and Monday alike, for nearly a month, the people, the Irish people who are so often accused of being indifferent to the fine arts, flocked at the rate of 1,500 a day. It may reasonably be doubted whether any great painter since the Middle Ages, meaning more precisely the Florence of Cimabue, has had such a tribute of homage and gratitude paid to him in his lifetime by his fellow-citizens and fellow-countrymen. It is certain that never was such a tribute better merited. For one might say that Jack B. Yeats can draw like Watteau — though his drawing is not like Watteau's except in its quick sensibility — and use colour like Titian — though his colour is not like Titian's except in the fact that it is as delicate as it is rich — and that, with such gifts, he has given the immortality of great painting to Irish life — the life of the people, the people living, unselfconsciously, their ordinary lives and, more selfconsciously, working out their national destiny.
A painter who died young but who, because he would seem to have been searching for an imaginative rather than an academic approach, deserves at least passing mention, was Augusta Gregory's son, Robert. I believe there was a fine Descent from the Cross by him in his mother's house but his Coole landscape at the Dublin Modern Gallery and a portrait of Arthur Sinclair in Costume in the foyer of the Abbey Theatre are the only works of his that are accessible to the public. They show Gregory as already influenced by the new art movement, which was spreading outwards from Paris just before 1914. (An exhibition of pictures by Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Othon Friesz, etc., organised by Mrs. Duncan, was held in Dublin about that time. And one of the loveliest of the Lane pictures lost to Ireland was, of course, Vuillard's Chimneypiece.)
William Leech is a painter, primarily a landscape painter, who was also affected about that time, by the new French movement. He lives out of Ireland — painting in France a great deal — but he sends his pictures home and Irish collectors of taste take a keen, almost competitive, interest in his pictures, which is no wonder, for though his work lacks variety, he is fastidious almost to a fault in his feeling for the decorative element in nature and in his handling of paint — he never loses the sense of what the French call "la bonne matière," clean, rich paint and beautiful brush work.
Another painter of that generation who, like Robert Gregory, interpreted the Irish scene lyrically rather than realistically is Paul Henry. Later, he concentrated on pure landscape to such a degree that "a Paul Henry" came to mean an immediately recognisable type of study of blue mountains with billowing clouds above them and a stretch of green or boggy foreground with a white-washed cabin and perhaps a sheet of water in the middle distance. Though this characteristic Paul Henry picture came even nearer to being a mere formula than, from the point of view of artistic invention, was judicious, or even valid, it has to be said nevertheless that it was well painted. But inevitably connoisseurs tend to cherish the artist's rare early studies with figures rather than the repetitious landscapes without figures of his later years.
It would be ungrateful and ungracious not to put in a claim for Grace Henry as an Irish painter, though she is Scottish by birth and studied mostly in Paris. She came to Ireland in her [p.508] youth and even if her visits to the continent have been frequent and sometimes lengthy, Ireland has been her headquarters ever since. And she has gone on painting the Irish scene with a sympathy and poetry of temper that place her high amongst the contemporary women painters in any country. Though influenced by modern continental art, and notably by Matisse, her work has unmistakable personality, Nature, nature in its gentler moods, remains her mistress, but her colour is of rare delicacy and taste, and a picture of hers in a room is as grateful a presence as a bouquet of choice flowers.
Irish women artists were quicker than the men to show the influence of the modern continental movement in painting. Thus May Guinness, though she stuck to representation, adapted herself without apparent difficulty to post-Impressionist technical methods, often using them to express, with a fine decorative sense, a mood of quaint and gracious humour. But those who have seen her copies of certain religious pictures in the Louvre may realise the amount of hard work that produced the seemingly easy mastery. Mary Swanzy is much more of a formalist. Indeed her austere insistence on purely formal values militated for a long time against her popular success. But she was probably the first Irish artist whose work showed the influence of Cézanne and she has always drawn a powerful line, so that, in spite of a perhaps exaggerated visionary tendency in her latest work, it is almost certain that many of her pictures will prove to be of lasting value. Unfortunately she has concerned herself little with Irish subject matter.
It was after the first world war that two young Dublin girls, Mainie Jellett, and Evie Hone, boldly knocked at the door of the studio of Albert Gleize in Paris, and informed the astonished artist, who had never had a pupil before, that they wished to study with him and to master the principles on which he, as an abstract painter, was working. Gleize was impressed and, after some parley, agreed to see what he could teach them. Thus it came about that in 1924 the two girls held an exhibition at John Butler Yeats's old studio in St. Stephen's Green which was in the nature of an open challenge to academic principles in painting. Curiously enough Æ was the most hostile of critics. (His attitude led to the only serious difference that I myself ever had with him.) But Ireland had not just come through a great revolution for nothing. Fresh ideas were acceptable and the two young artists were not only tolerated but given a good deal of encouragement. Then, as time went on, it became clear that Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone had accepted the new Parisian canons in art, not at all in order to épater le bourgeois, but purely with a view to submitting themselves to a rigorous discipline which, eliminating the merely journalistic element in painting, concentrated on aesthetic essentials. (I say eliminating "journalese," in painting, not literature in painting, for literature in painting means, or should mean, that element which is not merely legitimate but unavoidable, the psychological, the personal content, the varying degrees and kinds of vitality with which a genuine artist cannot help informing his work.) In little more than ten years after their joint exhibition, about the middle nineteen-thirties, that is to say, the paintings of Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone had, in spite of the abstract idiom, taken on such a degree of mastery and distinction — and in both cases it is important to note so much personal character that the work of one could not possibly be mistaken for that of the other — that Mainie Jellett was selected by the government to design the murals [p.509] for the Irish Pavilion at the Glasgow Exhibition of 1938. And Evie Hone was working on the great stained glass window, abstract in design, but called significantly My Four Beautiful Fields, which was to bring her international fame when the judges at the New York World's Fair in 1939 awarded it the First Prize for a work in stained glass. The title of that great window — now at the Holy Ghost Missionary College, Kimmage, Dublin — was significant because it was an open avowal by the artist of the inspiration which, for a work of abstract design, she had found in literary and national sources. In fact, neither Evie Hone nor Mainie Jellett had ever renounced the principle of imagery, of representation, and having mastered the principle of abstract design and decoration, they could and did feel free to apply either or both as circumstances seemed to them to demand. At the time of her lamented death, Mainie Jellett had almost completed a picture of major importance called Madonna of Eire , which inevitably conceded a great deal to representation, and while owing its inspiration to religion and Irishness avoided all suggestion of the mere journalese of either.
Mention of Miss Hone's stained glass demands reference back to the other important figures in the line of Irish artists in that medium which began with Michael Healy. Harry Clarke, who is dead nearly twenty years, but who, were he alive, would not yet be out of his fifties, left a few major and a considerable number of minor stained glass masterpieces both of colour and design. His line was perhaps a little too incisive in the Orpen way to be as richly suggestive as it might have been, but before such startlingly impressive works as the great Crucifixion at St. Joseph's, Terenure, and also, I believe, though I have not seen it, The Last Judgment at Newport, Co. Mayo, any criticism seems like mere cavilling. Wilhelmina Geddes, who for many years now, has worked in London, left only a few small windows in Dublin — at St. Anne's Church, Dawson St., but they are of unusual power and intensity for works on such a small scale. The Wilhelmina Geddes window by which the artist's countrymen set most store, however, is a major masterpiece which we only saw in the studio before it was despatched to the Canadian war memorial committee which had commissioned it. It was a remarkable window every way, but above all, if one may trust one's memory, for its strong and masterly composition and distribution of the figures, as well, of course, as for the somberly glowing colours which, from an artist of Miss Geddes's quality, one took almost for granted.
Nearer to Healy in temper, though with a personality of his own, is Hubert MacGoldrick. This artist's most ambitious achievement also left Ireland — a great window that went to Singapore — but we at home are more fortunate in regard to his work than we are in relation to that of Miss Geddes, for at least we have, in Dublin, the delicately silvery windows he executed for the mortuary chapel at the Church of the Holy Family, Aughrim Street.
Besides numerous individual windows throughout the country, Kathleen O'Brien executed all the windows at Spiddal, Co. Galway. Incidentally, Miss O'Brien tells me that it was she who (from a design by Sarah Purser), executed the St. Ita window at Loughrea, the attribution of which gave me so much trouble in my article on Loughrea Cathedral in the 1946-47 Capuchin Annual Capuchin Annual. Her work shows a firm grasp of the peculiarities of stained glass technique which make it praiseworthy, even though the artist is conservative and chary of personal invention in the matter of religious approach. A similar feeling for glass painting as glass painting [p.510] marked the gentle talent of another Tower of Glass artist, Ethel Rhind, who gave up working in the medium some years ago.
There can, therefore, be no questioning the extraordinary achievement of Irish stained glass artists during the half-century since The Tower of Glass started to revolutionise the practice of the art here. That achievement, it is practically certain, has not been paralleled in any country in the world. It is the reason for my speaking of it here. For normally a study of the art of painting in the modern world would be expected to keep to the subject of painting in oils. There is, of course, the further reason that some of our glass painters have been and are painters in oils, Healy, for instance, and, at the present day, Norah MacGuinness, Richard King — who though best known as a painter in oils and as staff artist of The Capuchin Annual, spent some years at the Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios both in the master's time and after the master's death — and, of course, Miss Hone, who, for all the time she has devoted to glass during the last twelve years or so, has never, even during her first years as a stained glass artist which were spent at the Tower, ceased to paint and exhibit pictures in oils and gouache.
And, thirdly, and most important of all is the fact that the beginnings of the modern practice of stained glass painting in Ireland marked, coincided with and perhaps even initiated, a return to religious painting in oils. From Emancipation onwards there had been a certain amount of religious sculpture — one needs only to recall the work of Hogan and Farrell — and there is a fine painted Deposition by Haverty at Maynooth. But, for the most part, our nineteenth century painters concerned themselves only episodically with religious themes, no doubt for the same reason that, as I pointed out earlier, they concerned themselves only episodically with national themes. What, in the study of aesthetics, is called "historical" painting, the treatment of heroic themes, sacred and secular, has always, however, been regarded as the highest art in the great schools of the past — which are, of course, the schools of the Latin countries. The Irish painters who were active at the beginning of the century had little incentive to see what they could do with such exalted subjects. But as the Irish revolution approached, and then, for the greater part of the country, realised itself, there was a perceptible change. And if there is not yet general acceptance of the idea of "historical" art as the criterion of a painter's achievement, it is largely because the Royal Hibernian Academy has fought a continuous rear-guard action on behalf of the English standard which, in spite of the valiant efforts of our own James Barry, was established in the eighteenth century and which in practice if not in theory tends to set the painting of portraits of the rich before everything. Portrait-painting has, of course, its place. Many world masterpieces of painting are portraits. But they are "heroic" portraits, painted not to flatter wealth and power, but studies in human character made by the light of the Holy Spirit. There was no demand for that kind of portrait at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland. Which is why John Butler Yeats was, by worldly standards, an unsuccessful artist.
Nowadays our best artists are finding themselves to an ever greater degree free to spread their wings. Thus Jack B. Yeats who, in his early days, painted at least two pictures of The Crucifixion, who has always concerned himself with heroic themes from Irish legend and even from the modern history of Ireland, and who painted only one portrait in his life, has nevertheless become, a world- [p.511] famous artist. Contemporaneously with the rise of the stained glass movement, Francis O'Donoghue began to paint sacred subjects — at Loughrea Cathedral, for instance, and at the church of The Three Patrons at Rathgar. His murals at the church are placed too high to be studied closely, but they seem to show genuine religious feeling and a real if quiet talent. Then came Seán Keating's Stations of the Cross at Clongowes, painted about I920, some of them very arresting. These probably mark a turning point in religious painting in Ireland, for, ever since, more and more of our painters have felt encouraged to give time and thought to the production of religious art. The same artist's picture The Men of the West at Charlemont House seized the imagination of the country and took on a quasi-political significance from the day it was first exhibited. Tuohy's Baptism in Jordan and Agony in the Garden, painted about the same time, invite criticism by the highest standards. When Maurice MacGonigal set out to paint a Crucifixion a few years ago he revealed greater powers of invention than the admirers of his work — or perhaps even he himself — had ever dreamed he possessed. Nor, as I pointed out in discussing Mainie Jellett, has the adoption of the contemporary instead of the academic idiom been any impediment to the practice of "historical" art.
Considering the situation today then, I should say that, since 1900, the ground has shifted perceptibly. Irish painting now is much more comprehensively expressive of the Irish nation and the Irish people than Irish painting in 1900. The national note was always somehow an inspiration, even in portrait painting, even for a politically indifferent artist like Walter Osborne — as witness his studies of Nelly O'Brien and Maurice Moore. And though, in Ireland as everywhere, the appeal of the highest art must naturally be limited, our present-day artists are nevertheless free to occupy themselves with the most exalted themes without feeling that there is an artificial boundary as well as a natural one between them and a potentially interested public. Thus Seán O'Sullivan may be regarded by superficial observers as merely the most vital of our academic portrait-painters and an occasional landscape painter of quality. But more even than his finest portrait (which, for me, is the study of Mr. J. J. O'Connor), do I remember a Mother of Sorrows of lofty imaginative power in a religious picture of his. Again, Sorley MacCann has claims to being the finest living Irish practitioner of painting who refuses to break the academic mould. But for subject matter he sticks almost entirely to religious and national themes. His Causa Laetitiae would command respect in any exhibition anywhere. An artist whose composition marks no real break with the academy but whose colour and handling of paint have all the freshness and taste that Parisian training could give them, is Frances Kelly. And it is noteworthy that for inspiration she too turns to religious and Irish themes as a matter of course.
There is no question here of mentioning all or even a reasonable percentage of our younger generation of painters. Any more than there was any question earlier in this article of mentioning all our older painters. I have not spoken of that fine Paris-trained painter Helen Trevor whom we know by only a couple of pictures at the National Gallery. In discussing Dermod O'Brien's capacity to render the quality of Irish light, I might have mentioned that it is a quality that is shared by Estella Solomons. And I remember a day in a huge gallery in Burlington Gardens, London, when I came on a landscape by Letitia Hamilton — whose palette could hardly be more [p.512] unlike the palettes of Dermod O'Brien and Estella Solomons — and, without even glancing at my catalogue instinctively rejoiced at the feeling of Ireland and home. Again, I have not mentioned the landscape art of J. Humbert Craig, though, especially in his early years, his work showed unusually fresh and authentic atmospheric observation. Similarly, amongst the established artists of a younger generation I must leave the works of the gifted Cecil Galbally of the academic right and the gifted Nano Reid of the unacademic left to speak for themselves at the projected Fifty Years of Irish Painting Exhibition in 1950. And Cecil Galbally and Nano Reid are only two. I can think of a score of young painters in Dublin, in Belfast, in Cork, in the west, whose work I should like to discuss. I can think of more than a score of their elders. But as I have been writing an article, not compiling a dictionary of painters, I must be content to have made a few suggestions, and to hope that other Irish writers on the fine arts will fill the gaps which, as I finish, I can see only too clearly in this short and very inadequate survey.