Winning the Albert Scholarship facilitated the artist’s post-graduate education at the Académie Royale des Beaux Art in Antwerp. This establishment was known in artistic circles as Verlat’s Academy, as Karl Verlat (1824-1890), an artist famed for his pedagogical prowess, held the role of the Professor of the Principles of Painting since 1877.
Moynan travelled to Belgium in company with his fellow Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor and they took up lodgings together at 12, Keizerstraat. The Académie had students from Ireland, England, France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany as well as the Scandinavian countries. The following March he participated in the annual Concours, a prestigious all-school competition. Moynan became the first Irish student to win the Concours, the highest distinction available to any student of the Academy, achieving the perfect score of 60/60 for painting the living model. This award was to change his status within the art school as he became part of an elite group of five students who were given their own studio space and were personally mentored by Karel Verlat.
Winning the Concours had other ramification too, as the artist felt his future was secure enough to marry his childhood sweet-heart and cousin, Suzanna Mary Moynan. The wedding took place by special licence at the bride’s home, in Thurles Town, County Tipperary on the 9th of April 1884. The couple honeymooned in Antwerp, where this picture was painted and Suzanna then returned to Dublin to allow Moynan to finish off his artistic education in Antwerp and later at Académie Julian in Paris.
What Does it Want? dates from the end of the artist’s two year sojourn in Antwerp and the canvas was exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in the spring of 1887. It marked the painter’s return to Dublin as a continentally-trained artist, but it also celebrated Moynan’s marriage. This picture was originally thought to have been made in the Dublin Metropolitan School of art, but research has proved otherwise.
This painting depicts Suzanna dressed in her outdoor clothes sitting at an easel. She is in conversation with the artist who has retreated deeper into the room. On the left of the canvas a curtain is drawn back and folded towards the viewer, inviting the spectator into the studio space. The image on the easel is deliberately obfuscated, a convention that demonstrated that the creative process is taking place in the artist’s mind. A shaft of sunlight from a window located high up on the left of the canvas illuminates Moynan’s shaded features, while the foreground is flooded with soft light. A similar flagged floor appears in other Antwerp works by the artist such as, Girls Reading a Newspaper (1885). The studio contains many classical casts and statues, ranging from vases, to a large acanthus leaf entablature, to a life-size statue of the Medici Venus. These signify Moynan’s academic journey, as art students began their schooling by copying from old master drawings (referenced here by the drawing board on the right of the composition) and advanced to sketching parts of classical statues, graduating to larger pieces, like the Venus figure. This in turn qualified the student to proceed to the life room and work from the living model.
The artist’s choice of the Medici Venus was particularly apt, as this goddess of beauty and love symbolizes the relationship between Moynan and Suzanna. Another, more shady classical figure hovers just above the artist’s head. She holds a trumpet identifying her as Cleo, the Muse of History. Cleo is a key player in a Jan Vermeer’s An Allegory of Painting (1665) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Indeed there are many other compositional and structural parallels between the two works, beginning with the motif of the curtain to mark the division between public and private space. The presence of the sculpture and tools of the artist, also underscore Moynan’s familiarity with Vermeer’s masterpiece but he has deliberately reversed the position of the artist and his muse. In Vermeer’s An Allegory of Painting the artist is seated at the easel while his muse stands, but in What Does it Want? the figures are arranged the other way around. The subdued palette is typical of Moynan’s Antwerp work, and the browns and creams are countered with the complimentary colour red that is evident in the velvet curtain and the ribbon in Suzanna’s hair.
This early canvas is the first of a suite of four self-portraits in which Moynan established his artistic credentials. Taking Measurements (1887) and The Artist in His Studio in Harold’s Cross (1887) are part of the Moynan collection in National Gallery of Ireland, while the third work, entitled The Artist in his Studio (1888) is located at University College Galway.
What Does it Want? is an important painting in the artist’s oeuvre. It demonstrates Moynan’s considerable training and knowledge of the old masters, and shows all the promise of his bourgeoning artistic vision.
1Walter Strickland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists, Vol.2, L to Z, London (1913), p.144
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