Irish Painting
History, Movements: Landscapes, Portraits, Genre Paintings.

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King Lear Weeping over the body
of Cordelia (1788) By James Barry,
one of the great Irish portrait artists
and history painters. See also:
Most Expensive Irish Paintings.

Irish Painting (c.1700-present)
History of Genres and Movements

18th Century

Painting and sculpture in Ireland have traditionally played a subordinate role to literature and music for a variety of reasons. Language, song and the written word have been more highly regarded in Irish society since the Middle Ages, and incipient unrest, poverty and war since the 16th century has made it difficult to sustain a strong tradition of fine art. Due to this lack of resources and patronage, works of Irish art that have survived from the period before 1800 generally reflect the world view of the Anglo-Irish landed classes.

Death of Nelson (Detail) (c.1862-4) by
Daniel Maclise, one of the greatest
Irish artists of the nineteenth century.

For details of exhibitions & shows
in galleries across Ireland, see:
Irish Art Exhibitions.


Irish Landscape and Portraiture

The financial resources required to sustain studios and purchase art materials were only accessible to the new landowners of 17th and 18th century Ireland, thus it is not surprising to find that much of the landscape painting of this time are essentially topographical and map-like vistas of the estates and houses of this aristocracy, commonly featuring views of formal gardens and pleasant scenery. A typical example is Nathaniel Grogan's 'View of Cork', painted mid-18th century. It commemorates the transformation of the former Irish Monastic settlement into a modern, mercantile city.

The Embroidress. By Leo Whelan,
a traditionalist and one of the great
Irish genre painters.

Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

For details of Irish abstract
painters and sculptors, see:
Abstract Artists Ireland.

So the visual arts in Ireland occupied a narrow niche in society, although in fairness it was a niche quite similar to that occupied by painting and sculpture in England, where the fashion for having paintings rather than tapestries was slow to take root and where the 15th century Reformation had virtually erased the tradition of visual arts dating from the middle ages. In England, as in many countries of the Northern Renaissance (like Flanders and Holland), portrait art had replaced religious painting as the premier genre, and landscape had yet to achieve its full flowering. Likewise in Ireland, where the topographical view of the manor house and gardens - the standard type of commission for Irish landscape artists - was gradually displaced by portraits of the Squire and his family painted in the style of Van Dyke or his followers.

History Painting

As in England, history painting was scarcer and largely avoided by Irish artists, except for James Barry (1741-1806), one of the greatest Irish artists of the eighteenth century, who spent most of his life in London.

Barry developed the art of narrative history painting (the highest form of Renaissance art in Italy) to a high degree, inspired by his visit to Rome and encouraged by the astonishing success of the fashionable derivative American artist Benjamin West (1738-1820) in London, who rocked the traditional supporters of academic art when he painted the 'Death of Wolfe' (1771) in contemporary rather than classical clothes. James Barry was also encouraged by the success of another American John Singleton Copley (the son of Irish immigrants), whose 1778 painting 'Brooke Watson and The Shark' also broke new ground in history painting (the traditionalists hated it for its lack of gravitas) and attracted enormous attention.


However, James Barry was more individualistic in nature and his career in London suffered as a result. Not only did he fall out with his erstwhile patron, Edmund Burke, he also savaged Joshua Reynolds President of the Royal Academy (RA) and was duly expelled from the RA as a result. Despite this, his murals for the Royal Society of Arts were the greatest series of pictures executed in the 'grand style' of history painting in Britain in the 18th century.

Two decades later, another Cork artist, Daniel Maclise (1806-70) relocated to London. Maclise was one of the early graduates of the Cork School of Art (now the Crawford School of Art and Design) which was founded in 1819. He established a reputation as a portrait painter at an early age and moved to the English capital in 1827. Intensely ambitious, his aim - like James Barry - was to be a great history painter and his successful career culminated in his large mural decorations painted in the houses of Parliament in the 1860s. A sociable and charming man, Maclise's historical paintings are characterized by meticulous attention to period details in clothing and architecture.

Post-War Recession in the 19th Century

As it was, the careers of Grogan, Barry and Maclise (and many other European artists) were significantly affected by the American War of Independence and the following Napoleonic Wars on the Continent. Maclise's great commissions for the Houses of Parliament were 'The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo' (1861) and 'The Death of Nelson' (1864). In Ireland, as in England, a recession followed victory at Waterloo caused principally by the heavy taxation imposed by the government to help pay off debts incurred by 20 years of war. Many English manufacturing companies and Irish farmers - both of whom had grown wealthy supplying the military effort, suffered financially as a result, and patronage of the arts declined in both countries.

Arts Education

To help alleviate the situation, an elaborate system of government schools of design (as opposed to fine art) was rolled out from the 1830s. The main aim of these design schools was to teach industrial design to workmen and artisans in order to improve the quality of manufactured goods in Britain. As it was, implementation of this educational initiative in Ireland was dogged by administrative controversy between the British government and the Royal Dublin Society.

At the same time, a number of philanthropic art societies had been established in cities throughout Britain and Ireland in the late 18th and early 19th century, to raise the standard of 'taste' in society and also improve the skills of craftsmen and artists. Due to practical conflicts between members and founders, most did not survive for long. One Irishman who remained committed to the improvement of society through art and design education for both working and middle classes, was James Brenan (1837-1907) - the headmaster of, and leading force behind, the Cork School of Art (1860-89) and thereafter until 1904 the Head Master of the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin (now the National College of Art and Design).

The Famine

In any event, with one or two exceptions, the history of Irish art during the first forty years of the 19th century witnessed no significant improvements in the visual culture of Ireland. Indeed, by 1840, most people involved in art education or administration - and many other areas for that matter - strongly suspected that the Act of Union which united Great Britain and Ireland in 1800, was benefiting Britain more than it was Ireland. This suspicion was borne out in the tragic years following 1845 when widespread famine brought devastation and upheavalto millions of Irish people, particularly in the West of Ireland. People was utterly dependent upon one crop, the potato: when the harvest failed, as it did repeatedly, they starved. As a result, Ireland's population was halved from 8 million to 4 million.

Strangely, this tragedy is commemorated in few paintings or sculptures of the period. Among those artists who did focus on the tragedy were the Cork artist Daniel MacDonald - whose picture 'The Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of Their Store' is one of a small number of works showing an actual scene from the famine - and James Mahony, a Cork-born watercolourist and illustrator, hired by the Illustrated London News to visit some of the worst centres of famine in West Cork. The engravings of Mahony's sketches in Clonakilty and Skibbereen helped to bring public opinion to bear on the British government to take action. A more modern example is the contemporary artist Alanna O'Kelly, who in her photo installation 'The Country Blooms, A Garden and A Grave', confronted the realities of the famine and it's impact on Irish society.

Celtic Arts Revival

During the era of late Victorian art, a strong historicising tendency began to emerge in work by Irish artists. Many people thought that, by incorporating some of the motifs which had been used during the Golden Age of Illuminated Manuscripts, a new 'national' art could be created. This notion was reflected in the Celtic arts and crafts revival in England, which also saw the medieval era as somehow holding the key to solving contemporary ills. However, with some exceptions, the result of grafting Celtic interlace and Romanesque motifs onto the decorative and fine arts could only be described as kitsch. One exception was The Honan Chapel in Cork in which mosaic stained glass textiles and architecture were united in a Byzantine masterpiece, with overtones of Russian and Greek Orthodox arts, as well as Celtic imagery.

Modern Development of Irish Painting (1850 Onwards)

Beginning in the later half of the 19th century, a new generation of Irish artists began to emerge. Typically, these artists looked outside of Ireland for both their training and their career. Examples include Frank O'Meara, Walter Frederick Osborne, Henry Jones Thaddeus, Roderic O'Conor and William John Leech, who all developed their plein-air painting in France, while William Orpen made his career in London.

Gradually, two developments occurred. First, some emigrant painters, like Paul Henry and Richard Moynan began to return to practise their art in Ireland. Second, another generation of Dublin-taught artists, such as Sean Keating and Maurice MacGonigal, began to emerge who were not interested in living abroad. These two groups formed the educational and inspirational nucleus for succeeding generations of twentieth century Irish artists. In the process, the indigenous group of painters began to search for an 'Irish' style of art, a quest which led to conflicts with their more 'internationally' minded compatriots, and a continuing debate about the best direction for Irish painting in the twentieth century.

Towards an Irish Style of Art (1870-1960)

The debate about the creation of an Irish style of painting in the 20th century which would somehow express the 'character of the Irish nation' raged for years and led to strong disagreements within Ireland's artistic community. In simple terms, the disagreement lay between those artists who were more inward looking, believing that the key to the future lay within the island of Ireland itself, (who favoured a more representational style of art) and those who were outward looking and felt that Irish art would benefit from emerging developments in Europe. For political and social reasons, the insular group tended to include more painters and sculptors of a conservative Catholic background while the internationalists tended to attract a strong middle class Protestant following. This is a gross oversimplication, as many artists (such as Paul Henry) who started their career by studying art on the continent or in London, came in later years to adopt an increasingly insular attitude to art and nationality. Even so, the more nationalist viewpoint was not best served by artists who held fast to fixed ideas of what their country should represent. The best work of Paul Henry (1876-1958), Maurice MacGonigal (1900-1979) and Sean Keating (1889-1977) was done when they were younger, more idealistic and ambitious. Their later works are sometimes lacking in inspiration and this may have been due to the general cultural isolation of Ireland, particularly in the 1930s.

Paradoxically, despite Ireland's devotion to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, a relatively small amount of its painting could be categorized as "Christian art".

Among the more internationally-minded artists of the earlier part of this period, were Nathaniel Hone the Younger (1831-1917), John Butler Yeats (1839-1922), George Russell (1867-1935) and Walter Osborne (1859–1903), whose impressionist style was common to many artists who had studied in Antwerp or Paris in the 1880s. Others included Edith Somerville (1858-1949) and William Gerard Barry (1864-1941). Being, for the most part, from relatively affluent Protestant backgrounds where culture was greatly valued, these artists travelled easily to London, Paris, Antwerp, Dusseldorf and Vienna. Others, like the portraitists William Orpen (1878-1931) and John Lavery (1856-1941) chose London. Their ranks included Hugh Lane, the son of a Church of Ireland Rector in Cork, who became a successful art dealer in London and staged numerous art shows in Dublin, including one in 1904 which included the work of a range of modern French artists. Even so, artworks which Lane regarded as 'modern' in 1904 were by French standards at least several decades out of date, with Picasso and Braque experimenting with new forms of art in Paris during that same year. Nevertheless, Hugh Lane did much to widen Ireland's culture horizons and he did attempt to foster his own version of a national school of art. (Note: For an interpretation of modern works, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings: 1800-2000.)

Early Irish Abstract Art

The theory and practice of Cubism arrived in Ireland courtesy of Mary Swanzy, Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) and Evie Hone (1894–1955), all of whom studied abstract art in France - first under Andre Lhote (1885-1962) and later under Albert Gleizes (1881-1953). After this they returned to Ireland and continued to develop a rather severe and academic style of Synthetic Cubism onto which they grafted a deeply felt spiritual sensibility. Hone and particularly Jellett had a significant impact on the Irish Art world in the 1920s, an impact that was due as much to their promotion of the Society of Dublin Painters exhibitions as to their own paintings. These exhibitions were not very avant-garde by Continental standards but they did provide a valuable alternative to the more prestigious but highly conservative annual exhibitions of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). The gulf that existed between these two camps in the confined world of Dublin in the 1920's is represented by the fine academic portrait, 'The Fiddler', by Leo Whelan and 'Composition' by Mainie Jellett. Patrick Hennessy from Cork joined with Jellett's society in the 1940s but his style can hardly be categorized as wholly abstract, more a half-way house between photo-realism and magic-realism.

Irish Exhibition of Living Art

Another Irish painter who experimented with Cubism was the brilliant young artist, Louis le Brocquy, who also came from a highly cultured background. Along with Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, Fr Jack Hanlon, Norah McGuinness, Margaret Clarke, Elizabeth Curran, Ralph Cusack and Laurence Campbell, Le Brocquy founded the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA), in 1943. Like the Society of Dublin Painters, the IELA was an association that opposed the traditional conservatism of the RHA. However, unlike Jellett, Le Brocquy's style of art passed through numerous distinct phases, attaining a high degree of sophistication. Le Brocquy's love affair with France unites him with a century of Irish artists, as it does also another accomplished contemporary painter, William Crozier (b.1930). A reaction to his environment can be detected in almost every work by Crozier, notably in his rich, coloured landscapes of West Cork, and in his dark almost brooding ink drawings of Hampshire.

Themes in Contemporary Irish Art

During the later 1960s, an overt theme of heroism began to emerge in Irish fine art. The Dublin artist Louis le Brocquy exemplified this trend in his use of historical and heroic figures from Ireland's historical and literary past, as did Robert Ballagh with his series of Irish Republican portraits. The Troubles only served to heighten this awareness of National identity. Artists like David Crone, Rita Duffy, Dermot Seymour painted their reactions to the military presence in the towns and countryside of Northern Ireland, while James Hanley invested his paintings with an iconography derived from the Church and Ireland's history. Irish sculpture too, became an outlet of political expression.

By the late 1970s, artistic shock evolved into cynicism with Micheal Farrell's Madonna Irlanda (subtitle: The Very First Real Irish Political Picture) (1977), which presented a view of a prostitute Ireland corrupted by continuing partition and a sense of cultural if not national subservience. All this, arguably, was a modern continuation of Jack B Yeats' earlier efforts, during the first half of the twentieth century, to support the national and cultural pride of Ireland.

When studying Irish art during the period (c.1965-1990) one should note the complex interplay of influences and motivations within the artistic community. Does Cosmopolitan influence imply local cultural inferiority or strength? Can a truly 'Irish' artist allow himself/herself to be diverted from focusing on Irish themes, or viewing issues from an Irish perspective? If a painter follows in the footsteps of William Orpen and others, and builds a prosperous career in London, Europe or America, is this tantamount to a sell-out of his Celtic or Republican heritage? These are live issues which continue to be debated by painters, sculptors and contemporary exponents of the visual arts throughout he 32 counties of Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster.

Fortunately, given the economic weakness which dogged Ireland for so long, and which directly undermined her painting and sculpture in the process, the country's recent phase of prosperity has led to an unprecedented surge in opportunity throughout the visual arts, and (equally important) has greatly boosted confidence in Irish culture and identity. Whether this increased material prosperity will continue to benefit Irish art, or lead to spiritual and artistic decay, is another question. (For a view about the top contemporary painters in Ireland, see: Best Irish Artists.)

Identity of Irish Art

Development of Irish fine art has not been a smooth process during the 20th century. After 25 years of political turmoil, a new Irish State emerged only to sink into isolation throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Post-war depression followed, which meant that it was only in the 1960s that Ireland began to build it's confidence as a nation - a process largely derailed by political unrest in the North. It is within this political straitjacket that artists sought to develop a uniquely Irish style of painting and sculpture.

The limitations attaching to this search for an artistic identity are plain to see. Like their predecessors, Walter Osborne, William Orpen, John Lavery, and Roderic O'Conor (1860–1940), the artists Tony O'Malley (1913-2003), Barrie Cooke (b.1931) and William Crozier are cases in point. O'Malley, from County Kilkenny spent his most formative years as an artist in St Ives in south west England. He was regarded as one of Ireland's most important contemporary artists. However, any critique of his work must take into account the influence of Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and other artists in Cornwall whom he came to know well. Similarly, no appreciation of Barrie Cooke, whose paintings epitomize a contemporary response to the distinctive Irish landscapes of the Burren and of the rivers and lakes of the Midlands, would be complete without taking into account his training at Harvard and in Mainie before he moved to Ireland. The Scottish born William Crozier is another complex challenge to assumptions about race, nationality and personal identity.


The truth is, from the 18th century onwards, a large number of important Irish artists, (that is, born or settled in Ireland), have moved between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, acquiring ideas, methods and agendas with scant regard for national borders or the classification issues beloved of art critics and historians. Even the quintessentially Irish painter Jack B Yeats (1871-1957), generally acknowledged as the most important Irish artist of the 20th century, was the product of many influences. Born in England, he divided his childhood between London and County Sligo, while his early training as an illustrator in England was critical to the formation of his mature style of painting.

In short, since no Irish art - no more than French, Italian or German art - can be said to have emerged from a laboratory, so to speak, but instead is the product of countless individual artists, their characters, circumstances and life experiences, is the search for a unique Irish style likely to produce any meaningful result? To put this another way, what meaningful definition of Irish art or Irish painting, could possibly accomodate the surrealist expressionism of Francis Bacon (1909-1992), the multi-layered contemporary canvases of West Cork based John Kingerlee (b.1936), and the academic portraiture of William Orpen?

Even today, contemporary artists like Valerie Brennan and Bridget Fahy seek inspiration from the Mediterranean landscape.

Aside from this, recent interventions by governmental and private bodies have endowed the visual arts in Ireland with a whole new range of opportunities which have been taken up successfully by a wide number of contemporary artists working with both traditional and modern media. This, together with the emergence of numerous top-class Irish art galleries, as well as increasing access to international shows, projects and forums, bodes well for all artists on the island of Ireland.

See also: Oil Painters of Ireland.

Sources include:

- Irish Art 1770-1995 - History and Society (1995).
- Dictionary of Irish Artists, Theo Snoddy (2002).

• For our main index, see: Homepage.
• For more about traditional art, see Representational Painting in Ireland.
• For more information about outdoor work, see: Plein-Air Painting in Ireland.

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