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Details & Cataloguing

A Living Legacy: Irish Art from the Collection of Brian P. Burns

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Darius Joseph MacEgan
1856-1939
THE NATIONAL GALLERY, DUBLIN
signed and dated l.l.: MacEgan 1932; also inscribed with title, signature and dated 1933 on the stretcher
oil on canvas
36 by 42.5cm., 14¼ by 17¼in.
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Provenance

Dillon Antiques, Dublin

Exhibited

Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy, 1933, no.114;
Gorry Galleries, Souvenir Exhibition of Drawings and Paintings by The MacEgan, 1940, no.12;
Boston, Boston College Museum of Art, America’s Eye: Irish Paintings from the Collection of Brian P. Burns, 26 January - 19 May 1996, no.28, p.109, with tour to Dublin, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 19 June - 25 August 1996 and New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, 25 September 1997 - 4 January 1998;
Phoenix, Phoenix Art Museum, A Century of Irish Painting: Selections from the Brian P. Burns Collection, 3 March - 29 April 2007, p.79

Catalogue Note

The present painting was shown one year after MacEgan exhibited an interior called ‘A Corner in the National Gallery’, both at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Prior to recent extensions and modernisation, the space depicted was originally the first, grand, main picture gallery for Dublin’s National Gallery. Dating from 1864, The Dargan Wing was partly funded by Thomas Dargan, the son of a tenant farmer. It was reopened in 2016 (now called The Grand Gallery, Room 44), after several years of refurbishment and restoration of its original glass roof. This painting allows us to compare how various details have changed, as well facilitating identification of what was in the 1932 display. The original quarry tile floor, with its orange and red border, survives, as does the arcaded screen wall and staircases, that MacEgan uses as the backdrop for his closely detailed painting. The public still walk up, entering dramatically from what was the Sculpture Room beneath, via a grand pair of curved stone staircases opening through the wide arch that is shown here in the centre. At the turn of these stairs, before stepping up higher to more galleries just visible here, a pair of recesses (shown in the painting) contained two white nineteenth century Carrara marble statues. They had then only recently been donated to the gallery. On the left is ‘Crouching Venus’ and to the right is ‘Spinario or Boy extracting a thorn’ (copy of a Roman bronze) both by Giacomo Vanelli (NGI 8186 & 8085). Venus remains on display in Room 44 (as it is now known), but in a niche beside where the straight stairs lead up to Room 45. These higher ‘French’ galleries, glimpsed in MacEgan’s view, still display oils in gilded frames, but there are fewer of them now, as the fashion favours a single rather than double height hang.

The central spine of the room is still furnished with seats, but instead of upholstered benches, where sketching equipment and discarded clothing is included by MacEgan, now there are four Regency scroll- armed benches, and a single white statue. The bronzes which we can see in this painting seem to be Gustav Natorp’s ‘Knuckle-bone player’ (1893) and John Donoghue’s ‘The Young Sophocles leading the Chorus of Victory after the Battle of Salamis’ (NGI.8037). The glossy patina on the latter sculpture and the way it dominates the foreground of the picture, leads the viewer’s eye towards the background, adding drama and height, as he holds his lyre aloft. To the right of this and high up on the top row, is Titian’s ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (NGI.84) c.1545, which the gallery purchased in 1870. Inside the main arch, now known as the minstrels’ gallery, the dark framed painting seems likely to be Antonio Panico’s ‘Christ on the Cross, with S.S. Francis and Anthony of Padua’.          

As fashions for display evolve, such a realistic study is a valuable window onto an authentic interior. A shift in curators’ priorities is apparent. The paintings were protected from the potential of being touched by the public, by the wooden handrail that ran around the gallery’s perimeter, which is absent now. Bannisters considered adequate in 1932 to protect the public from danger, have since had higher rails added. White information labels are now prominent beside each painting, whereas none are visible in MacEgan’s depiction, so presumably the small black on gold labels tacked to the base of each frame, were then considered adequate. Wall colour was equally restrained, in cream, rather than rich blue.    

MacEgan’s two related paintings of the National Gallery were exhibited during a period of severe economic depression in Ireland, and his depiction of this interior was perhaps his way of drawing attention to its poor circumstances (emphasised by the discarded clothing and sketchbook). Just two years after this painting was exhibited, the National Gallery’s Director, Thomas Bodkin, who was in any case only employed part time, finally resigned in exasperation over inadequate funding, becoming Director of the Barber Institute instead, in England.

Dr Claudia Kinmonth MRIA (Research Fellow RDS Library & Archives 2018)

Literature

Adrian Le Harivel ed., National Gallery of Ireland Illustrated Summary Catalogue of Prints and Sculpture (Dublin, 1988).

Homan Potterton, National Gallery of Ireland Illustrated Summary Catalogue of Paintings (Dublin, 1981).

Myles V. Ronan, Illustrated catalogue Souvenir Exhibition of drawings and paintings by The MacEgan at The Gorry Galleries, 20 Molesworth Str., Dublin (Nov. 25 – Dec. 10, 1940), p.7, illus’ p.9, cat. No.12.

Ann M. Stewart, Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts, Index of Exhibitors 1826-1979 (Dublin, 1986).

A Living Legacy: Irish Art from the Collection of Brian P. Burns

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London