Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design VII


The neo-classical painter Robert Fagan was born in London and spent the greater part of his career in Italy. But he never forgot his Irish heritage and in 1801 painted this picture, Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia. The work has often been considered a response to the previous year’s Act of Union, the effect on Ireland suggested by the harp’s broken strings. And the painting is replete with other references to the old country, not least the wolfhound, the pages of text headed by the words ‘Erin go bragh’ (Ireland forever), the thatched cottage and, of course the green gown – worn rather negligently – by the sitter. The proposal has been made that she was a Margaret Simpson, mistress of Henry, thirteen Viscount Dillon, a notion strengthened by the carved nude female reclining luxuriantly on the harp. This is not Ireland as later nationalists would represent her, but serves as a fitting symbol for the cosmopolitan splendour of the country’s culture during the long 18th century which is being so wonderfully celebrated at present in Chicago’s Art Institute.
This ends a week of marking the exhibition Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 which runs until June 7th. The Irish Aesthete reverts to customary coverage from tomorrow.

5 comments on “Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design VII

  1. Penny Perrick says:

    Thank you for a week of beautiful objects – almost as good as being in Chicago.

  2. Andrew McCarthy says:

    When I was at university, one of my history professors remarked that in eighteenth-century portraits of women, the artists often used one bare breast as a secret code to signify that the woman in question was the mistress of a powerful man.

    Perhaps the bare breast has a double meaning here; one, obviously, would be the status of the sitter herself. But it might also mean that Ireland had “prostituted herself” to England, via the massive bribery and corruption which led to the 1800 Act of Union.

  3. Gavin O'Reilly says:

    Or a wag might suggest that Hibernia as a semi clad strumpet with her strings well plucked encapsulates the Ascendancy perfectly

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