In the present painting, Maclise depicts a young woman in lush countryside singing a song. She has a sleeping child on her shoulder, and she holds a basket of apples on her right arm, and a ballad sheet in her hands. The woman has the kind of dark Mediterranean or Irish looks favoured by the artist, with shining black hair, strongly defined eyebrows, lustrous brown eyes, and rosy cheeks and lips. She is clad in a red cape, white blouse and orange scarf, into which a rose is tucked. She wears a ring on her index finger, denoting her marital status. In her hands she holds a sheet of paper, the title of which, seen through the flimsy paper, seems to be ‘Sailor’s Wife’.
In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge had published their Lyrical Ballads drawing attention to the rustic figures who they encountered on their walks; and throughout the Romantic period there was a belief in the importance of collecting traditional ballads and folk tales of regions around Europe. Irish painter and antiquarian George Petrie travelled around Ireland collecting traditional songs and airs, and published his Ancient Music of Ireland, containing 150 songs, in 1855.2
The Ballad Seller in Maclise’s painting looks happy, with ruddy cheeks and fine clothes. On her right arm is a wicker basket full of shining apples, suggesting health and plenty, and two containers; one earthenware, one glass. The woman is immersed in nature, beneath a bower of shiny leaves and small four-petalled lilacs. Behind her is a wooden fence on which a robin perches, and up which ivy climbs. In the landscape to her left a tower can be glimpsed against an evening sky. The robin is the most popular garden bird, but here it is listening to the woman rather than singing its own song. The robin is sometimes used as a symbol of the bird which plucked a thorn from the crown of Jesus and was stained with his blood. Equally, the rose is the most loved of flowers, associated with the Virgin Mary, and also symbolising the heart and love, romantic, sensual or spiritual. The pink rose, as in Maclise’s painting denotes new love. The ivy symbolises tenacity and immortality, and is a tribute to the woman’s steadfast character.3 The round tower may be a reference to Ireland’s Romantic past.
The subject of the girl or woman in a landscape or outside a door, with decorative and symbolic use of plants, is one which preoccupied Maclise in both his paintings and illustrations. For example, in his illustrations for Mrs S. C. Hall’s book Sketches of Irish Character, published in 1844, he features girls with hooded capes, holding baskets, seated by a well, and so on. Notable amongst his paintings of women are The Butterfly and An Adherent of the Stuart, 1854.4 The Ballad Seller is characterised by Maclise’s love of detail. This can be seen in the intricate weave of the wickerwork basket, the variegated hues of the shining apples, the stitching on the woman’s leather bag visible on her hip, and the ballad sheet, with its image of a storm-tossed ship, and edges which catch the light.
1 For recent studies of Maclise, see Peter Murray, ed. Daniel Maclise, 1806-1870. Romancing the Past. Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, 2008; John Turpin, ‘Maclise, Daniel’ in N. Figgis, ed. (Irish) Painting, 1600-1900, RIA/Yale, 2014; Brendan Rooney, ed. The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, National Gallery of Ireland, 2017.
2 See Peter Murray, George Petrie, 1790-1866: The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, 2004. In contrast, as noted by German musicologist Carl Engel in 1866, England was slow to value the preservation of its own folk music. See Rob Young, Electric Eden, London, 2010, p. 59-60.
3 For the interpretation of symbols, see; Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, London, 1974, 1984, and The Complete Dictionary of Symbols in Myth. Art and Literature, ed. Jack Tresider, London, 2004.
4 The Butterfly, 'Irish Paintings', Gorry Gallery, Dublin, Nov.- Dec. 1988, no.10; and An Adherent of the Stuart, 'Important Irish Art', Adam’s, Dublin, 26 March, 2013, lot 93.
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