The National Gallery holds the largest and most comprehensive collection of historic Irish art available anywhere.
The tradition of easel painting in Ireland began in earnest in the seventeenth century, when James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, invited artists to Ireland to paint portraits in an effort to found a native school. This initiative was further advanced in the 1740s with the establishment of the Royal Dublin Society. The Society schools educated a new generation of artists who were keen to attract the patronage of a burgeoning sophisticated clientel with portraits and landscapes with which to furnish their residences. The collection holds important works by the pre-eminent artists of the period most notably James Latham, Stephen Slaughter, Nathaniel Hone I, James Barry and Hugh Douglas Hamilton.
The lure of a wider market prompted many gifted Irish artists to move to London, among them George Barret and Nathaniel Hone the Elder, both of whom were founding members of the Royal Academy of Art. This pattern continued through the nineteenth century with artists such as Francis Danby and Daniel Maclise establishing successful careers in England. In eighteenth-century Ireland wealthy landowners continured to commission views of their estates from artists such as Barret and Thomas Roberts. The Act of Union in 1801 altered the nature of patronage and compelled artists to develop new ways to sustain their careers. The most successful initiative in this respect was the founding of the Royal Hibernain Academy 1823.
In the second half of the nineteenth century Nathaniel Hone the Younger was among the first of a generation of Irish artists who travelled to France to broaden their artistic education. He was followed by Walter Osborne, Frank O’Meara, William Leech, Roderic O’Conor and others who were drawn to the artists' colonies at Brittany and Barbizon. Of this group, John Lavery was one of the most succesful and he went on to enjoy a highly lucrative career as a portrait painter in London.
The establishment of the Metropolitan School of Art (later the National College of Art and Design) provided an institutional basis for the promotion of art education in modern Ireland. Its most celebrated pupil William Orpen would later become the guiding light for a new generation of artists, notably Sean Keating, Leo Whelan and Margaret Clarke.
Following the turn of the century, a focus on Irish folklore, politics and society became evident in the work of artists such as George Russell and Sean Keating. Post-Independence Ireland witnessed the growing popularity of subjects of the western seaboard, as is demonstrated in paintings by Paul Henry, Gerard Dillon and Jack B Yeats. This period also signalled the emergence of Modernist trends in the paintings of Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, both of whom trained and worked in Paris in the studios of André Lhote and Albert Gleizes.