Through a Lens tour: Highlights

Man looking at a painting in the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery of Ireland.
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland. Photographer: Jack Caffrey, The Pimlico Project, 2017.

Online self-guided tour

As you stroll through our galleries, look out for this selection of paintings. These visitor favourites are among the Gallery’s most requested works and are gems of the national collection.

Finding your way around

  • If you are doing this tour onsite at the Gallery, taking in all the works will take approximately 60 minutes.
  • Feel free to skip a few or spend longer at others.
  • When in the Gallery, please be aware that you will be moving across various levels, which may require access to lifts. You can ask any member of staff to direct you to the closest lift. They will also be able to direct you to any other facilities you may require including a Changing Places facility located at the Merrion Square entrance.

What's included

The selection of artworks is quite broad, spanning different centuries, styles, artists and genres. To help get you thinking and looking closely at the works you will find a few questions with each entry. You can also follow 'Explore further' links under each entry to learn more about the artwork or about how the Gallery has engaged with it through projects, resources, podcasts and online content. 

"[The National Gallery of Ireland has] one of the great collections of Europe; one of the finest of its size – there is no better collection in the world."...Thomas Bodkin, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (1927-1935)


Start the tour!

Oil painting of spectators crowding along the quays of the River Liffey watching a swimming race
Jack B. Yeats The Liffey Swim
Abstract composition of shapes in a frame shaped like an altarpiece
Mainie Jellet Decoration

Room 14

Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957), The Liffey Swim, 1923 

What kind of atmosphere has Yeats created in this painting? He has captured the thrill of an event, the Liffey Swim, which has been part of Dublins annual sporting calendar since 1920. What makes it look so exciting?

Yeats' growing interest in Expressionism, an artistic style designed to awaken or represent emotions, plays a big part. He uses his brush to create flowing shapes and a sense of movement. He also uses a strong selection of colours to draw your eye to certain parts of the painting. Can you see where he uses red to highlight parts of the scene? Where does he want you to look?

In this painting, Yeats invites us to be a part of the event by placing us among the spectators, who lean forward to catch a glimpse of the swimmers. He plays with the perspective, the space and depth of the painting, to bring us further into the event and allow us to see it in its entirety. Do you think this technique draws your attention? 

The character in the brown fedora hat on the left may be the artist himself, and the woman wearing the elaborate yellow hat beside him might be his wife, Cottie. Yeats was awarded a silver medal for this painting at the 1924 Olympic Arts Competition in Paris. The medal is in the Gallery’s collection. 

Explore further

Room 15

Mainie Jellett (1897-1944), Decoration, 1923

Mainie Jellett trained in Dublin, London and Paris. Inspired by Cubism, an approach to art, which uses multiple viewpoints to fracture an image into geometric forms, she began to analyse rhythm, colour and form in her own work. Look closely at this painting, what shapes can you see? Which colours stand out?

Does the shape of the frame remind you of anything? A church? A house? Even though this work is essentially abstract, the style, colours and materials are very similar to religious icons depicting the Madonna and Child (some of which you can see in Room 33 in the Gallery or via the links below). The gold in the background and the strong blue and red are examples of colours used in both the icons and Jellett’s painting. The smaller shapes nestled among the larger shapes are intended to look like a mother holding a child. Do you see the resemblance? Do you like the technique she uses?

Decoration was one of the first abstract paintings shown in Ireland. When this painting went on display at the Society of Dublin Painters group show in 1923, it caused uproar. The reviewer from The Irish Times wrote of Jelletts work in the exhibition, ’… to me they presented an insoluble puzzle.Another journalist referred to the sub-human art of Miss Jellett. What do you think of Jellett’s Decoration?

Explore further
Harry Clarke (1889-1931), 'The Mother of Sorrows', 1926. © National Gallery of Ireland. Harry Clarke (1889-1931), 'The Mother of Sorrows', 1926. © National Gallery of Ireland.

Room 20

Harry Clarke (1889-1931), The Mother of Sorrows, 1926

The stained glass piece is a pietà, an image of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ. Here, Clarke has placed this typical representation in a mandorla, an almond-like shape traditionally associated with representations of these religious figures. Can you see the black cross within the mandorla? Or the flowers around the edge?

Underneath the angels on either side, there are two other main figures; Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Genoa. Each saint has their own symbols. Can you spot them?

St Francis of Assisi: 
  • Barefoot
  • Fluttering birds around him
  • Richly painted robes
  • Short beard
  • Stigmata (marks that match crucifixion wounds)
  • Halo
St Catherine of Genoa:
  • Covered head
  • Crossed arms
  • Red robes (symbolising the fire of divine love)
  • Vision of the dead Christ held by his Mother
  • Stigmata (scars that match crucifixion wounds)
  • Halo (glowing light behind their head)

Clarke’s work has a distinctive style. He used vivid colours and stylised elongated figures to add grace and elegance to his work. What has he accentuated in the human figures here to make them more ethereal? Their large eyes, elongated fingers, torsos and limbs contrast with their smaller heads to make them look almost cartoon-like. Do you like this style? What makes you say that?Can you see the textured detail of each pane of glass? What do you think about this technique? 

Explore further
Dramatic oil painting crowded with people, with a man in armour and a woman at centre being married by a priest. Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, c.1854. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Shaw Room

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, c.1854

The subject of this monumental picture is the marriage at Waterford in 1170 of the Norman military adventurer Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow, and the daughter of Dermot McMurrough, King of Leinster. The moment has often been identified as representing the formal establishment of a Norman foothold in Ireland. What emotions are portrayed on the bride and groom’s faces?

Can you see the three distinct bands of light? Maclise uses the bright light to highlight the wounded Irish in the foreground and background, and a band of shadow to distinguish the victorious Normans in the middle ground. How do you think the depictions of the Irish and the Normans were received during Maclises time compared to now?

In this painting Maclise uses multiple symbols to represent the destruction of the native Irish culture:

  • ruined buildings
  • the elderly harpist and his broken instrument
  • the dead and wounded being carried away
  • Strongbow stepping on the Celtic cross
  • Aoife’s downcast face and body language
  • the unconscious child in the wailing woman’s lap
  • the lowered banners
  • McMurrough’s wary gaze aimed at Strongbow
  • the tombstone inscribed with ‘Oroid do mac’ (‘pray for the son of’)

What do you think each of these specifically represents? Can you see any other elements that might have significant meaning?

Explore further
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), 'The Taking of Christ', 1602. © National Gallery of Ireland Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), 'The Taking of Christ', 1602. On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson, 1992. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

Room 25

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Taking of Christ, 1602

Caravaggio painted this extraordinary work for the Roman Marquis Ciriaco Mattei in 1602. It depicts Judas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, identifying Christ with a kiss, and betraying him to the temple guards as they move in to seize Him.

Caravaggio took a new visual approach to this biblical story, using novel methods to add a sense of drama. Can you see how he used each of these techniques?

  • Placing the figures close to the viewer. How does this feel?
  • Strong light-and-dark contrast known as chiaroscuro. Where is the light most dramatic?
  • Distinctive locations for the source of light. Can you tell what they are here? It is the moonlight from the top left and a lantern.
  • Action poses for the figures. What emotions or actions stand out to you?

It has all the features associated with his great works: a dramatic story, expressive figures, combined with a spiritual dimension and magnificent surface detail. What is your favourite part of Caravaggios style?

Apart from Judas, Jesus and the temple guards, we can see the fleeing disciple on the left, Saint John the Evangelist. On the right, Caravaggio portrayed himself, aged 31, as an observer of events. 

Can you also see one of the pentimenti? These traces of earlier layers of paint are now visible due to changes over time. Do you think we should cover these up or do they add an extra element to the painting?

Explore further
Oil painting of a woman writing a letter at a table with a maid standing beside her
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, c.1670
Three-quarter length portrait in oil of a young man wearing an elaborate embroidered cape, ruff and cap, and holding a sword.
Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625) Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592), later Duke of Parma and Piacenza, c.1560

Room 38

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, c.1670

Vermeers work displays an unprecedented level of artistic mastery in its illusion of reality. His figures are often quiet and inactive, contributing to the solemn and mysterious atmosphere of his paintings. 

This painting, like most of his work is a genre scene: a work depicting everyday life. These were often designed to be conversation starters so they do not always have a clear storyline or message. They are open to interpretation. We are given clues to possible storylines based on objects in the painting:

  • a maidservant stares out of a window. What emotions do you see on her face?
  • a woman sits writing a letter. What does her body language tell us about her thoughts or mood?
  • a red seal on the floor. Why would that be there?
  • a stick of sealing wax. Why has the maid not picked this up?
  • a letter-writing manual, often used for personal correspondence at the time. Does this tell us what the woman is writing?
  • the chair pushed out from the table. Was someone sitting there moments before?
  • The painting in the background is ‘The Finding of Moses’. Might there be a baby involved?

What are these objects telling us about the story within the painting? 

Explore further



Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625), Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592), later Duke of Parma and Piacenza, c.1560

You might notice as you view the Gallery’s collection that there are far fewer female artists than male artists. Historically, women had less opportunities to access an artistic education and to then progress with a career in art. This was prevalent in the 16th century when Sofonisba Anguissola was working. However, all six daughters of the Anguissola family became painters. Sofonisba, the eldest, enjoyed the most success. She developed her skill as a portrait painter, combining an ability to capture a likeness with an attention to sumptuous costume detail. 

Here she portrayed Alessandro Farnese, the son of the Duke of Parma, at fifteen years old. This portrait was inadvertently the first work by a female artist to be acquired by the Gallery. When it was purchased in 1864, it was attributed to Anguissola's male contemporary Alonso Sanchez Coello. The true identity of the artist was identified in modern times when more research was published about Anguissola and her body of work. This can happen with historical works of art. What do you think about this unintentional inclusion of Anguissola’s work in the national collection?

What kind of fabrics and stitched detail has Anguissola included in the Prince’s clothing? Can you see the luxurious fabrics, soft fur and delicate bead work? What does this say about his status? Do we learn much about his personality or interests from this painting? If you had an official portrait painted of yourself how would you want to be portrayed? Would you wear your finest clothes? Would it include your family, friends or pets? Would it be in Anguissola’s formal style or a more contemporary style of art? 

Explore further
Impressionistic landscape painting of a  river, trees on the riverbank, buildings on the horizon and a white sailboat.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, 1874
Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), 'Le Corsage Noir', 1878. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) Le Corsage Noir, 1878

Room 3

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, 1874

From 1871 to 1878, Monet lived in Argenteuil, a picturesque, developing industrial town on the outskirts of Paris. He made this picture in 1874, the year in which the newly-formed Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc. held its first exhibition in Paris.

They became known as the Impressionists. They were an art movement focused on the accurate depiction of light. To achieve this they typically used small thin brushstrokes, which some critics said gave only the ‘impression’ of what they were trying to depict. 

The Impressionists, Monet included, painted en plein air, which means in the open air.  What do you think are the pros and cons of painting en plein air? In 1872, Monet fitted out a boat as a floating studio; from it he painted numerous views of Argenteuil, the River Seine and its banks. He painted the effects of light on water and the surrounding landscape, as well as the changing seasons. What season was it when he painted this work? What makes you say that?

Monet also adds a sense of movement. What parts of the painting look like they are moving? The shifting clouds? The rippled river surface? The blaze of orange leaves? The white-sailed yacht? What feelings does this painting provoke? Calm? Unease? Excitement?

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Room 3

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Le Corsage Noir, 1878

Berthe Morisot exhibited at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and at most of the groups subsequent shows. She painted and exhibited professionally throughout her life and often sold more paintings than the other male Impressionists, also sometimes for more money. 

Morisots paintings typically portray domestic scenes and the activities of middle-class women - the type of subject matter that was considered appropriate for a woman artist of her class. This also meant her paintings were more socially acceptable to purchase and display in a home compared to some of the other Impressionists, who painted people at bars and clubs. Would you hang this painting in your home?

Le Corsage Noir (the Black Bodice) is technically one of these domestic scenes. What do you see in the painting? It shows a young woman dressed in evening attire. Morisot’s model was actually a professional model. The dress she wears belonged to Morisot.

As Impressionists were known for their depiction of light, how has Morisot used light in this painting? How has Morisot applied her brushstrokes in the painting? Are they loose or small and detailed? What colours has she used? Even though the title of the work implies the dress is black, is it actually? If you look closely, you’ll see it's a dark blue pigment. 

Explore further

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