‘The Water Mirrors A Still Sky…’
Date(s) - 02/06/2015-11/08/2015
Greyfriars Municipal Art Gallery
The title of the summer 2015 exhibition of paintings from the Waterford Municipal Art Collection “The Water Mirrors A Still Sky…” is a quotation from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Wild Swans At Coole”. In the poem Yeats describes the beauty of an Autumn landscape, in which swans can be seen to represent permanence and immortality of the natural world. As such it provides the appropriate metaphor for this exhibition of landscape and still-life flower studies by 19th and 20th century Irish artists.
In the traditional hierarchy of painted subjects, the genres of landscape and still-life ranked lowest, beneath historical subjects, portraits and everyday scenes. Often lacking human subjects, they were considered relatively insignificant as works of art, and also less technically demanding to paint. In more recent times however, both landscape and still-life paintings, due to growing interest in the natural world, have become the subjects of choice for many artists, including the French Impressionists and Cubists.
Landscape paintings feature very prominently in the Waterford Municipal Art Collection. Some are painted in a naturalistic and finely detailed way, like Horsbrugh-Porter’s Fishing Shelter, Dunlewey, whilst others are more loosely handled and impressionistic like Natthaniel Hone’s Landscape near Malahide. Many are picturesque scenes that include details of rivers and lakes, like William Conor’s Reflections, River Lagan. Here the rivers’s calm waters, like those in Yeat’s poem ‘mirror a still sky’. In others however, for example Jack Yeat’s, While Grass grows…’, a turbulent sea reflects an altogether more apocalyptic scene.
Irish artists like Paul Henry, who were active during the immediate post-Independence period, depicted the country as a rural idyll. Henry’s Evening in Kerry, for example, shows white picture-postcard Bella Donna Lilies, oil on canvas, 1949, Geraldine M. O’Brien (b.1930) Pink Roses, oil on board, 1966/68, Rosemary Higbee (b.1923) cottages set beneath romantic purple/blue mountains. Others artists like James Humbert Craig and Mildred Anne Butler, include animals within their chosen subjects, the latter’s peaceful ‘cowscape’, Out in the Open, being reminiscent of earlier Dutch paintings of such themes.
Whilst being devoid of human subjects directly, landscapes, such as Patric Stevenson’s Above Passage point to man’s intervention in the natural environment. Electricity poles climb up the hillside above this picturesque County Waterford village, and suggest the impact of rural electrification on the Irish landscape during the 1920s. Elsewhere, in Martin Gale’s meticulously detailed, Inland, natural vegetation is reclaiming an abandoned and broken down greenhouse, indicating the ultimately ephemeral nature of such human interventions.
This sense of transience is sometimes apparent in still-life paintings; a particular genre developed during the 17th century. The objects depicted often assume a symbolic meaning; and a piece of decayed fruit, or dead flower might act as a memento mori or reminder of death. There is little reason for such thoughts to arise when considering the beautiful thriving blooms that feature in the works of Eileen Costelloe and Geraldine O’Brien however.
Flower painting was traditionally regarded as appropriate only for amateur women artists, incapable of meeting the more stringent demands of other genre. Waterford artist Rosemary Higbee’s strikingly Modernist composition, Pink Roses however, could hang comfortably alongside a Henry Matisse, and shows how things have changed.
Dr. Peter Jordan (June, 2015) art historian & author of Waterford Municipal Art Collection – A History and Catalogue” (Gandon Editions, 2006)