rt historians maintain that, on the whole, there has never been a coherent, continuous tradition of Irish visual art. The "visual arts need leisure, stability, and above all money to survive" (Sheehy 8) and centuries of invasions, foreign occupation, and economic difficulties robbed the Irish people of these requisites. Their great traditions of aesthetic achievement have been in music and literature, which "can be passed on orally even in times of change and instability" (Sheehy 8). Within the realm of visual art, their greater accomplishments are in the popular and applied arts. However, part of the aim of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries' Celtic Revival was to help change this; purveyors of the fine arts in Ireland sought to follow the accomplishments of writers and craftsmen with parallel achievements in painting and sculpture.
The entire Celtic Revival movement grew out of the increasing Irish nationalism of the nineteenth century, a nationalism that stemmed from centuries of resentment at subjugation by foreigners in both political and cultural spheres; the artistic movement went hand in hand with a desire for political freedom. Focusing on the cultural accomplishments of the past would be the best way to restore Ireland's self-worth, leaders of the movement believed, and even before the nineteenth century artists such as James Barry and Vincent Waldré used scenes from Irish history as the subjects of some of their paintings with this purpose partly in mind. In the 1830s, the Irish antiquarian movement began, which was marked by scholarly and artistic interest in Irish antiquities. One of the foremost individuals in the movement was George Petrie whose interests spanned not only scholarship and art, but journalism and music as well. He earned his money primarily as a topical artist, working mostly in watercolors. Of his painting, The Last Round of the Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise, he wrote,
It was my wish to produce an Irish picture somewhat historical in its object and poetical in its sentiment - a landscape composed of several of the monuments characteristic of the past history of our country, and which will soon cease to exist, and to connect with them the expression of human feelings equally belonging to our history, and which are destined to a similar extinction.
In short, I desire to produce a picture which might have an interest and value, not pmerely pictorial, beyond the present time, and thus connect my name with the Art Union Association, and with the history of art in Ireland. [Sheehy 22]
A friend of Petrie's was Frederic Burton, the other major painter of the antiquarian period. One of his most famous works is entitled Paddy Coneely, the blind piper, which depicts a Galway musician.
The Young Ireland movement that came on the heels of the antiquarian movement was more political in its focus, though it too attempted to use contemporary Irish art to achieve its ends. One of the leaders of this new campaign was Thomas Osborne Davis, who founded The Nation, the newspaper "which was the voice of the movement" (Sheehy 29). He was especially interested in the fine arts, and in The Nation published a list of historical Irish subjects for artists to use as the topics of their paintings. Pictures showing items from Davis's list show up in the works of painters such as Joseph Peacock, Richard Rothwell, Joseph Patrick Haverty, Henry McManus, and Bernard Mulrenin. However, though the movement was important in its own time, and for those involved in Young Ireland "the cards may have seemed to 'blossom', but to the modern eye they are rather dry" (Sheehy 37). The Young Ireland's achievements had no great lasting effect. Throughout the rest of the mid-nineteenth century, "national feeling manifested itself in various degrees among artists working at home" (Sheehy 41). The most important of these painters were the previously mentioned Frederic Burton, William Mulready, and Daniel Maclise. Maclise is the most acclaimed Irish painter of the nineteenth century; he painted and sketched many scenes from Irish history and mythology, and his talent as a draughtsman was particularly great. In sculpture, the most important names are John Henry Foley, whose most famous work is perhaps the O'Connell monument in Dublin, Christopher Moore, whose best work is in portrait busts, and John Hogan, who "specialized in figures accompanied by Erin" (Sheehy 56) (a personified Ireland).
The Celtic Revival proper (sometimes called the Irish Renaissance) began in the 1880s. Like the antiquarian and Young Ireland revivals, this new movement also had its greatest achievements in literature. This is not to say though that art was completely neglected, and of the many different Irish cultural organizations that were founded in this time period, had members who were painters, sculptors, or craftsmen and drew upon traditionally Celtic subject matter for their art. In the fine arts specifically, "the most conspicuous, and lasting, manifestation of the Celtic Revival was not a single work of painting or sculpture, but an art gallery" (Sheehy 107). Founded by Hugh Lane, the Gallery of Modern Art displayed not only Irish art but also works by the best contemporary European artists from all over the continent. It holds an important place in the Revival as a whole in that the Gaelic League praised it highly, important Irish literary figures (including W.B. Yeats and John Millington Synge) wrote about it, and Lady Gregory "connected the gallery specifically with the movement" (Sheehy 107). Lane himself said that such an art gallery was essential in creating a well-defined school of Irish painting. It opened in 1908 on Harcourt Street and subsequently, after a significant amount of controversy, moved to Charlemont House, Parnell Square, in 1933.
Painting and sculpture after 1900 became less nationalistic, and the artists "became more preoccupied with the medium than with the message" (Sheehy 177), and this is not surprising, given that this was the trend in art all throughout Europe at the time. Even so, a significant number of artists did choose to depict Irish subject matter. Of the early twentieth century painters, the brother of W.B. Yeats, Jack B. Yeats, is most closely connected with the Celtic Revival. Yeats, Sheehy points out,
was one of the few painters of his time, perhaps even the only one, who managed to show a real and essential Ireland without sentiment or condescension or a striving for outlandish effect. Apart from these evocations of Irish life and atmosphere some of his pictures are directly political in content. . . For his family connections, his evocations of Irish life, and his political sympathies, Jack Yeats was clearly the most important painter of the Revival. [Sheehy 182]
The subjects of sculpture were more nationalistic than painting in that there was a trend towards creating monuments for national heroes. One of the best sculptors of the period was Oliver Sheppard, who did a bronze of the mythological hero Cuchulainn and a bust of the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan. Another and perhaps better contemporary sculptor was John Hughes, whose most famous works are the on Loughrea Cathedral and outside Leinster House in Dublin.
Yet for all the Irish subject matter in painting in sculpture during the Revival, historians have not been able to identify a clearly Irish style in the fine arts. The paintings and sculptures that Irish artists produced "were the result of external influences rather than a spontaneous expression of nationality on the part of the artists...That Maclise was among the artists chosen to decorate the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, or that Hogan was highly respected in Rome, was much more important to Irish opinion than their work itself" (Sheehy 189). Artistic style in Ireland was primarily an extension of the styles in the rest of Europe. Try as one might, a national style, explains Sheehy, cannot be forced.
1. What similarities and differences are there in the fine arts portion of the Celtic Revival and the popular and applied arts portion?
2. What similarities and differences are there between the Celtic Revival and the other cultural revivals of the time, such as the Moorish or the Medieval Revivals?
3. Are there elements of the Pre-Raphaelite movement evident in the Celtic Revival? If so, what are they and why do you think they manifested themselves in the way that they did?
4. What specific artistic characteristics do you think that the Celtic Revival was trying to produce in developing a national style? What would Irish art have needed to do in order to separate itself from the rest of European art?
5. If Ireland had developed a national style, do you think that this would have been threatening to the English, who ruled Ireland at the time? To what extent would art have influenced politics?
Sheehy, Jeanne. The Rediscovery of Ireland's Past: The Celtic Revival 1830-1930. Thames and Hudson, London: 1980.
Last modified 21 November 2004