By Jack Quin and Tom Walker
This poster for Thomas Bodkin’s book Hugh Lane and his pictures (1932) is included in the exhibition ‘Writing Art in Ireland, 1890–1930’, currently on display in the Long Room. The advert reproduces William Orpen’s Homage to Manet (1909), a group portrait of the novelist George Moore reading from his pamphlet Reminiscences of the Impressionist Painters (1906) to an audience in London made up of the collector Hugh Lane, the painters Philip Wilson Steer, Walter Sickert and Henry Tonks, and D.S. MacColl, the Keeper of the Tate Gallery. Above them hangs Édouard Manet’s painting of another impressionist painter Eva Gonzales.
So this is a seriously self-reflective work: ‘a painting of someone reading about paintings to a group of painters in front of a painting of a painter who is painting a painting’, as the historian Roy Foster describes. And it seems to be striving not only to reflect but also embody, through Orpen’s technique, the lessons that French Impressionism had to offer British and Irish art – during a period when Orpen was dividing his time between London and Dublin, where he taught with great success at the Metropolitan School of Art.
The stir then created by the Impressionists is perhaps hard to grasp now; their works have long since been made safe within the confines of the tea towel. But the writer and text wedged in the middle of Orpen’s picture, Moore and his pamphlet (reproduced here and also included in the exhibition in the Long Room), help to recover something of the challenge Manet’s Eva Gonzales then offered.
Moore looked to its acquisition for Dublin as an opportunity to do nothing less than set the city on a path towards ‘freedom of thought’: ‘That portrait is an article of faith. It says: “Be not ashamed of anything, but to be ashamed.” Never did Manet paint more unashamedly. There are Manets that I like more, but the portrait of Mademoiselle Gonzales is what Dublin needs. In Dublin everyone is afraid to confess himself.’ Moore was aligning the painting with his own taboo-breaking realist fiction and his provocative, yet idiosyncratic, impressions of the Impressionists drew considerable ire. Indeed his own cousin, the playwright and devout Roman Catholic Edward Martyn responded: ‘every now and again […] you said something that hurt me as much as if someone had shoved a pin in the very quickest part of my body’. Nevertheless, both these writers’ interest in furthering a cultural revival that would be visual as well as verbal attests, like Orpen’s painting itself, to the intertwined nature of the verbal and visual arts in early twentieth-century Ireland.
Jack Quin is a Research Assistant in the School of English, working on the Irish Research Council-funded project ‘W.B. Yeats and the Writing of Art’. Tom Walker is an Assistant Professor in the School of English and is Principal Investigator on the ‘W.B. Yeats and the Writing of Art’ project.