PRINT January 1972

Cork: Irish Painting in the 19th Century

“IRISH ART IN THE 19th century,” an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, medals, photographs, and applied arts at Cork, Ireland, from October 31st through December 29th, is a beautifully presented first glimpse at an (undeservedly) obscure period and a fascinating overview of the Irish contribution to international modernism. Visually most striking was the richness of painting that Irish artists produced. There were no special innovators, but this exhibition served to remind us that quality operates separately from style. Comparable in its own way to the recent German 19th-century show at Yale, the Cork exhibition—well-selected and superbly hung—forces us to look at Irish art in a new light.

Although this was exploratory and expository in contrast to the more esthetic, structured Yale show (that is, it undoubtedly included some artists purely for historical interest), there were some interesting parallels. And not the least of these was the fact that both Germany and Ireland created their best art by responding to international modernism. For Germany, however, a case could be made that a national style developed in the 19th century. Not so for Ireland. Most of the artists represented at Cork spent their working lives abroad. Some even left as children. What we see, therefore, is essentially the effects of changing international taste. In his catalogue essay, Cyril Barrett distinguishes three main periods of activity, roughly corresponding to the mainstream development: a bridge period between 18th-century Classicism and 19th-century Romanticism; a more sentimental or rhetorical Romanticism of the mid-19th century (both of these paralleling trends in Britain); and a late response to continental modernism—to aspects of realism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism. These divisions are certainly justified by the paintings exhibited, but what is also pertinent is that from time to time artists clearly change their styles to accommodate new taste. William Mulready is the best example of this—making early “Dutch” genre paintings, then in the ’30s, morality pictures not too unlike later Pre-Raphaelitism, only to turn to a refined and very sensitive landscape style based on that of his very first, Varley-derived, student works. Two tiny landscape miniatures in chalk from his late period were among the finest in the exhibition. But very occasionally, provincialism operated to free from current taste, as in a figure study by the almost unknown Joseph O’Reilly (1865/70–1893) which for all its awkwardness of drawing possessed a frankness and audacity that was truly remarkable. For most of the good work, however, it was more a matter of it appearing fresh and lively irrespective of its borrowings.

From the first period, Francis Danby is undoubtedly the master and his apocalyptic paintings are well represented. At least they show just how convincing he could be when his mind was on things other than effects. The Israelites led by a Pillar of Fire by Night (ca. 1825) has all the drama and excitement, but is also a closely knit and carefully lighted picture. Sometimes, though, the pictorial disappears leaving a kind of tasteless illustration (e.g., Subject from the Revelation, ca. 1829). The most beautiful Danby was not an apocalyptic work but a quiet rich landscape in the Claude tradition: Sunset through a Ruined Abbey, ca. 1825. A daring symmetry of tree-topped rocks across a pool, one side lit, one in shadow, it served to remind that in 19th-century landscape painting, Claude-derived conventions of dramatic contrasts created an immensely productive international manner. It was a style not without its own problems. By exposing its subjects to glaring illumination, emphasizing silhouettes, the tonality of a work tended to be subservient to the outlining. Individual details therefore often received undue emphasis—for it was a delicate task to correlate neoclassical drawing and enveloping light. Danby’s colleague, James A. O’Connor, shows what could go wrong. His darks seem frequently merely neutral and his linearity finicky. Even his best picture at Cork, The Frightened Wagon (1832), suffers in this way. In contrast, Danby’s weakness was that his drawing would become too stiff and when this happens—when a painting fails tonally—Danby comes close to being an illustrator. But the snares of the illustrative weren’t restricted to this style; and if there was a recurrent theme in this exhibition it was that if artists forsook observant naturalism in search of dramatic or stylish effects they risked becoming more anecdotal, and not less so. Misdirected efforts towards a “significant” style so often turned out to be the cause of slight work. It spoiled most of the later painters—such as Roderic O’Conor, who worked in the Pont-Aven circle and there picked up an academic modernist method, or Jack B. Yeats, when he abandoned his early “documentary” studies for a chaotic painterliness. In contrast, Nathaniel Hone, who studied under Couture and worked at Barbizon, produced some fine marine paintings simply, one feels, because he set his sights more modestly and because he remained more honest to his sensations—although he had, of course, in this last respect, the advantages of a realist esthetic.

In the mid-19th-century period the anecdotal became mainstream, with very special results. This tendency was well represented, with paintings by Daniel Maclise, Sir Frederick Burton, “Dicky” Doyle, Andrew Nicholl, William Davis, and William Mulready. All these are what we call “literary” painters since, whether landscapists or figure painters, they were intent on “describing with feeling.” But whether the feeling derived from or preceded their descriptive methods was the crucial issue. Fugitive, applied feeling spoils Maclise’s more ambitious work. Like Landseer, he turns out to be a considerable artist when a more modest one. Of all these figures, he was the only one to achieve a fully painted style. Whereas in Mulready’s The Sonnet, what looks at first like painterliness turns out, once more, to be conceived as draftsmanship, with Maclise’s oil sketch, The Crucifixion, and especially with his The Falconer, we see some real painting—conceived as color and tonality—that is, although rhetorical, convincing because its rhetoric is not overwhelming as it is in his grander allegorical works. For most of these artists, however, draftsmanship is the stated logic of their work—and those who stuck closely to a kind of exact “portrait” drawing produced pictures of considerable charm. Doyle comes into this category, as does Nicholl (whose tight precisionism recalls Dyce). Both these artists have a special kind of modern appeal, due mostly to their Surreal qualities. In contrast, Davis (at least as represented here), although using similarly bright and ornamental colors, appears less accessible, lacking the strange mystery and inwardness that makes especially Nicholl’s flower pieces so memorable. Davis has the exactness all right, but (as Ruskin noticed) it seems to no purpose. And the same applies also to Burton’s derivative Pre-Raphaelitism which lacks substance. His virtuoso watercolor technique therefore commands curiosity, not admiration.

Some of the later French-influenced artists I have mentioned already. Yet it was from this section that some of the most finely painted works came. Not from William Orpen or Walter Osborne (both of these looked too stylish) but from John Lavery. His four pictures at Cork were all special in their different ways. The slightest was an unfinished Study for Ariadne (1887), containing a fine life study; but The Hammock—Twilight (1884), Sketch for “The Tennis Party” (1885), and Tea Room; The Glasgow Exhibition of 1888 (1888) were three exquisite intimist paintings. All depended on their restrained color range, their delicacy but directness of touch, and their firm surfaceness. The Hammock was probably the best, its forms most fluently locked; the Tennis Party sketch was remarkable for its small narrow format (9 3/4 by 24 inches) drenched in modulated greens. The Tea Room, made a year after Lavery met Whistler, certainly shows the influence: it is more atmospheric than the other pictures, its red and blue accents have a “musical” effect on the neutral ground. It too is a convincing work. Lavery clearly could paint, and the brand of modernism he adopted was perfect to his talent. He was certainly no innovator and is by no means a major painter. However, one thing his work reveals is that the “freedom” we rate so highly is double-edged. Modern art, as it is still called, is a supremely self-confident affair, often valuing its innovative strivings as if they were qualities. Lavery’s message is that the modern qualities which really matter are not necessarily connected with style; they have more to do with a keen inwardness toward the medium, with localized ambitions, not with stances—what can only be called particularized honesty.

John Elderfield