Tuesday 20 March 2018

A pretty picture... '50 Works of Irish Art You Need to Know'

A new book that brings you on a guided tour of Ireland's artistic heritage

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife
The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife
A Family
The Temptation of Adam
Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs
A Lady Holding a Doll's Rattle
Portrait of Noël Browne
Island People

Sophie Gorman

Everyone has their own opinion about art, we are all drawn instinctively to different things. But Irish art is so vast, so sprawling, where do you even begin?

The first thing to realise is that art is a subject where a little knowledge can transform an experience and a new book by art historian and former curator of Irish art at the National Gallery Sighle Bhreathnach-Lynch aims to provide a starter kit.

50 Works of Irish Art You Need To Know will open the door into a fascinating world by sharing the unique stories behind each piece.

Bhreathnach-Lynch's book spans all visual art forms, from the decorated entrance stone at Newgrange to instantly familiar paintings such as William Leech's Covent Garden to Francis Bacon's apparently shambolic but perfectly arranged studio.

But let's begin with paintings and here is our guide to seven Irish paintings you need to know. All of them are on public view and, best of all, six of these paintings are all part of our National Gallery Collection. The only exception is Gerard Dillon's Island People, which is part of Cork's Crawford Art Gallery collection.

This will serve simply as an introduction, there are so many other important Irish artists that hopefully you will meet wandering between these paintings, internationally acclaimed artists such as John Lavery, Francis Danby, Jack B Yeats, Sean Keating, Mainie Jellett, Daniel O'Neill, Sean Scully, Francis Bacon, Alice Maher, Paul Henry… We, as a nation, punch well above our artistic weight.

1 The Temptation of Adam (1767 - 70) by James Barry

Cork-born James Barry is considered by some to be the most ambitious, controversial and important painter Ireland has ever produced. This reasonably risqué painting, with only a small apple leaf to spare Adam's blushes, was painted when he was still in his mid-twenties.

Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

2 The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854) by Daniel MacLise

This vast and dramatic painting with the self-explanatory title is 3-by-5 metres. Painted by Cork native Daniel MacLise in the middle of the 19th century, it is viewed by 750,000 people a year.

Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

3 Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864) by Frederic William Burton

Three years ago, this rich watercolour beat off the likes of Caravaggio and Louis le Brocquy to claim the title of Ireland's favourite painting. Burton was born in Corofin, Co Clare, and he was inspired by an old Danish ballad to paint this moving depiction of ill-fated lovers.

Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

4 A Lady Holding a Doll's Rattle (1885) by Sarah Purser

Dun Laoghaire's own Sarah Purser was a very important artist but also rather unique in that she also had extraordinary business acumen. She made important investments, notably in Guinness, and was involved in setting up the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery.

Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

5 Island People (1950) by Gerard Dillon

The island in question is Inishlacken and the man carrying a suitcase and a canvas is most likely the artist himself, making his escape to the mainland in one of those currachs, all being watched by the two islanders - and a donkey. An acclaimed landscape artist and figure painter, Gerard Dillon was born in Belfast in 1916.

Photo © Crawford Art Gallery

6 A Family (1951) by Louis le Brocquy

This stark and enduringly topical painting was inspired by the aftermath of the WWII, the backdrop of nuclear threat, the vast refugee crisis. It was most controversial when it was first shown in Dublin, with many prominent art critics announcing their repulsion but that was not enough to stop its triumph.

Photo ©Estate of Louis le Brocquy

7 Portrait of Noel Browne (1985) by Robert Ballagh

Dubliner Robert Ballagh chose to depict politician Noel Browne as an outsider, driven out of politics to the western stone beaches of Connemara. Ballagh has always been an artist determined to observe and chronicle the world he lives in, reflecting the real faces of a modern Ireland.

Photo © National Gallery of Ireland/ Robert Ballagh

50 Works of Irish Art You Need to Know by Sighle Bhreathnach-Lynch is published by Gill & MacMillan on September 18

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