Details & Cataloguing

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


Michael George Brennan
1840 - 1871
signed, dated and inscribed l.l. (on the step): M.G.BRENNAN ROME / 1870;
also inscribed no.1, titled, signed and indistinctly inscribed with the artist's address on a label attached to the stretcher
oil on canvas
68 by 90.5cm., 26¾ by 35½in.
Lire le rapport d'état Lire le rapport d'état


Christie's, London, 9 May 1996, lot 17


Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin, Ireland's Painters 1600-1940, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2002, no.334, illustrated p.248


A highly accomplished genre and landscape painter, born in county Mayo, Brennan showed promise at an early age. He trained at the Royal Dublin Society’s Drawing School1 and subsequently at London’s Royal Academy School. He worked drawing principal cartoons for Fun (a Satirical newspaper like Punch) but resigned because of an unwillingness to caricature the Pope. Suffering from ill health, he was advised to move to a warmer climate. So he moved to Italy and some of the 14 titles sent back to the RA reveal his interest in religious subjects; Kissing the padre’s hand and The young priest (both 1866). He also sent three paintings to the RHA. However his death from consumption at the age of 35, cut a most promising career short.2 The National Gallery of Ireland hold two of his paintings.

Brennan’s narrative suggests the interplay between the world of the Roman Catholic church, and that of the outside world. He uses a studied rectilinear format, to separate those in the foreground, below, representing the offspring of poor Italian families, against those above, framed in the formal background of their church entrance. The massive green panelled door, the classically-carved marble, and the solid base of a huge column emphasise such contrasts. The top step divides the religious figures, shaded from the heat in their smart clothes, in the upper part of the image, with the slightly chipped lower steps leading down onto a foreground littered with broken straws, nutshells and orange peel. The ragged children are absorbed in their activity; playing a street-game like skittles or marbles; four walnuts have been arranged in a pyramid and more are being thrown to topple the pile.

Caught up in the uncertainty of their game, the boys focus intently on the little target. Meanwhile the priest and his assistant look ready for a comparatively grand ‘Way of the Cross’ procession, its timing announced by the sign hanging in front of the green curtain, beneath a painted monstrance and chalice. The thurible or censer in which incense is burning, swings from the man’s hand, ready for the occasion. As if just appearing at the door to look for the altar boy, both seem distracted, momentarily by the youthful game. Each is dressed in a cassock covered by a lace trimmed surplus. The way the incense smoke issues back into the church, past the polished chains of the censer, draws attention to their polished shoes with shining buckles.

The flower seller pauses behind the others, with her basket, as if she wandered into the scene, with a distant, ambiguous gaze. Flower sellers were numerous among the poorest street sellers, and their posies were often sold door to door. One pink petal fallen from her basket divides the smallest seated boy, from the altar boy overlooking him. His position on the steps, on the horizontal division between formal from informal, adds ambiguity to the painting’s title, The Acolyte. This meant either ‘an assistant or follower’ (ie the judge in the older boys’ game) or ‘a person assisting a priest in a religious service or procession‘.3 The cobbles invite the viewer’s eye from the girl’s foot, downwards and around, towards the small boy’s. Long shadows point towards him too. On the far left, the next player holds a walnut in his hand, and another behind his back ready for his chance. The skin tones and assorted patches of his clothes, brilliantly lit from behind, are painted with the same impressive detail and care afforded to the altar boy’s buttons and tricorn hat.         

Dr Claudia Kinmonth MRIA (who thanks Dr Lisa Godson for advice on terminology).

1 Gitta Willemson, The Dublin Society Drawing Schools students and award winners 1746-1876 (Royal Dublin Society, 2000), p.9.

2 W. G. Strickland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists Vol.I A-K (Irish Academic Press, 1913), p.82-4.

3 https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/acolyte

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