This high level of training explains the artist’s diverse corpus of work; that includes portraiture, landscape, military and political subjects, genre pieces, scenes of domestic life, literary topics, as well as historical subject-matter. Moynan had a great affinity with children and frequently engaged family and friends as models.
Ball in the Cap is a masterful composition. The use of the triangle, as a visual tool has been popular since before Egyptian times, but, here, the artist has employed the triangle as a subtle and engaging device. He juxtaposed the triangular effect of the steep slope of the streetscape and the flight of steps on the right hand side, with the large triangular shadow cast from the other side of the street, leading the eye up towards the inverted triangle of sky. This complex composition engages the viewer in a dynamic reading of the work. Most of the action takes place in the sepia shadow of summer sunshine and this is enlivened by yellow ochres, mauves, blues and dappled whites. There is a sense of immediacy about this picture which suggests that it was largely painted on site.
Set in a hillside village, a group of children take turns testing their skills at tossing a small ball into an upturned cap. The narrative hinges on the action of a well-dressed boy on the left, who weighs the ball in his right hand, while measuring the distance to the cap. Five other boys flank the cap, their body-language conveying their immersion in the game. One child bends forward with his hands on his knees, while a smaller, ragged boy rests his hand on the flight of steps leading to a fine, but run down, Georgian dwelling. The streetscape is full of contrasts. There is a row of multi-storey, slated houses on the right, while the far side of the street is lined with small cottages, some in a sad state of repair. The entrance to the nearest cottage is cluttered with rain barrels and an upturned farm cart, occupied by two small children. In the middle distance, a woman and a girl carry a pail of water towards the village. The boys’ clothes suggest that they are from different socio-economic backgrounds, but they are united in their common interest, thus giving the impression that participation in sports cuts across all class boundaries. A male/female divide is also in evidence, as the male children are free to enjoy themselves, while the girls are engaged in domestic chores.
In 1891, Moynan exhibited Military Manoeuvres (one of the centrepieces of the National Gallery of Ireland’s Irish collection) in the annual exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy. This marked a watershed in Irish art, as it was the first significant large-scale painting depicting village children in a wider social context. Yet, unlike Ball in the Cap, the artist’s sketchbooks in the National Gallery archive indicate that it was painted from studies assembled in a studio context, rather than being painted on site.
A family photograph, dating from this period, depicts Moynan’s wife, Suzanna, and their children in company with the artist’s extended family, on holiday in Greystones, County Wicklow. The similarity between some of the boys in the photograph and Ball in the Cap suggests that the artist, once again, used family members as models. The painting was created in the summer of 1892 and exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in the spring of the following year. Unlike many of his peers, Moynan inscribed his signature on the left side of the canvas, using a rigger brush. The bright palette and the vibrant brush strokes are typical of Moynan’s emerging Impressionist style. Ball in the Cap shows the artist at the height of his powers.
Maebh O'Regan (with thanks to Barbara Clark and Zalie Moynan)
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