The life of Flemish artist Peter de Gree appears to have been short and not especially happy. Born in Antwerp, he originally studied for holy orders but abandoned this for painting, specializing in grisaille work which led to his being noticed by banker David La Touche, as well as Sir Joshua Reynolds. When de Gree came to London in 1785 the latter provided him with fifty guineas and a letter of introduction to the fourth Duke of Rutland, then serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He arrived in Dublin the same year and soon began to receive commissions. However, as Strickland noted in his 1913 Dictionary of Irish Artists, ‘De Gree, although he worked hard and charged low prices for his pictures, was not very successful. He lived in two small rooms, stinting himself in order to send to his parents in Antwerp all that he could spare of his earnings. The privations he endured broke down his health, and in January 1789, he died in his house in Dame Street.’
De Gree’s first commission in Dublin was to decorate the first floor Music Room of David La Touche’s residence at 52 St Stephen’s Green with a number of panels inspired by musical themes; these remain in situ. The series of large grisaille panels shown here, featuring a number of classical gods and goddesses, as well as playful putti, were originally painted for the house next door, 51 St Stephen’s Green, built around 1760 for the M.P. George Paul Monck, but they were subsequently removed and installed in another house in County Wicklow. More recently the panels were acquired by the Office of Public Works which has its headquarters in 51 St Stephen’s Green. However, that building has undergone many changes since first constructed and so de Gree’s series of grisaille pictures have now been hung in a first floor room on the western side of Dublin Castle’s Upper Yard, one of suite recently redecorated and opened to the public.
Taking advantage in a respite of hostilities between Britain and France thanks to the Peace of Amiens, in September 1802 a Cork Quaker merchant called Cooper Penrose travelled to Paris where he sat for Jacques-Louis David. The artist had written beforehand, ‘Mr Penrose can have complete trust in me, I will paint his portrait for him for two hundred gold louis. I will represent him in a manner worthy of both of us. This picture will be a monument that will testify to Ireland the virtues of a good father and the talents of the painter who will have rendered them…’ Penrose subsequently brought the picture back to his native city where until around 1947 it hung in the family house, Woodhill (since demolished). Turning up with Wildenstein & Co. in New York in 1953, it was acquired by the Putnam Foundation and is now one of the glories of the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, California. Another emigrant destined never to return to these shores…
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.