Through a Lens tour: Irish art

A view from above of red and orange rooftops in a green landscape
Mary Swanzy (1882-1978), Pattern of Rooftops, Czechoslovakia, c.1920-1922.

Online self-guided tour

This selection of artworks explores Irish art in the national collection. These are artists who changed the landscape of the Irish art world during their lifetimes and beyond.

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 close to the Merrion Square entrance.

What's included

The works selected here are quite broad: spanning different decades, styles, artists and genres. They have been compiled to give you a glimpse of how Irish art has changed and developed over time.

This is not an exhaustive list, but merely a starting point to pique your interest. You can also follow the links at the bottom of each entry to learn more about the artwork or about how the Gallery has engaged with it through projects, resources, podcasts and online content.

To view more specific themes in the Gallery’s collection you can explore the other Through a Lens tours.

Start the tour!

About to Write a Letter Jack B. Yeats, About to Write a Letter © Estate of Jack B. Yeats, DACS London/IVARO Dublin, 2019. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Room 14

Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957), About to Write a Letter, 1935 

Jack B. Yeats uses expressionist techniques to show emotion in his painting. Expressionism is a modern art movement that does not focus on realism but instead seeks to evoke emotions in the viewer.

  • What sort of emotion or mood do you feel when looking at this painting?
  • What makes you feel that way?

Artists like Yeats used fast brushwork, colour and light to communicate different feelings. If we break these down, what do you think each element expresses?

  • Fast brushwork
  • Figures in the paintings
  • Royal blue paint
  • Colour of the gentleman’s face
  • Various shades of red paint
  • Clouds and light in the sky
  • Yellow paint

Yeats began his career as a draughtsman, later moving to work in watercolours and then oils. His work often has literary influences and an imaginative romantic lyricism.

In this case, he is depicting a fictional character of a young man who is torn between the woman he loves, his fiancée, and his wild lifestyle. He is about to sit and write a letter to his beloved explaining how he has gone back to his drinking and gambling.

This parable-like tale was taken from a collection of poems called ‘The Fancy’ by Peter Corcoran, which was the pseudonym for John Hamilton Reynolds. In the story, the young man continues down his wayward path and dies soon after, penniless and alone.

  • What do you think Yeats might be saying about the man, based on how he painted him?
  • What makes you say that?
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Abstract composition of shapes in a frame shaped like an altarpiece Mainie Jellett (1897-1944), Decoration, 1923. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

Room 15

Mainie Jellett (1897–1944), Decoration, 1923

Mainie Jellett was a multi-talented woman: an artist, pianist, lecturer, broadcaster and publicist. She was the daughter of a barrister and a musician, and her artistic education gave her a strong foundation in art practice.

  • Early teaching from the Yeats sisters, Lily and Elizabeth, and May Manning – all key figures in the Irish art scene in the early 1900s
  • She went on to attend the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where she was taught by Sir William Orpen, portrait painter and war artist
  • Following that, she studied at Westminster School of Art, London, learning under Walter Sickert, British painter and printmaker

Jellett and fellow-artist Evie Hone worked together closely from early in their careers and travelled to Paris together to study at André Lhote’s Academy. When Jellett's work was displayed in Dublin, it was not well received. The writer George Russell called two works exhibited in 1923 ‘artistic malaria’.

She worked on a version of cubism, which breaks down an image into geometric forms.

  • How many different shapes or layers do you see in this work?

Normally cubist works presented the subject from multiple angles, but Jellett focused on a singule angle instead. She worked by rotating and translating the shapes, focusing on colour and form. You can see some of her sketchbooks in the Gallery’s collection.

  • How would you translate an object, landscape or person into a two-dimensional plane?
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Paul Henry (1876-1958), 'Launching the Currach', 1910-1911. © National Gallery of Ireland. Paul Henry (1876-1958), 'Launching the Currach', 1910-1911. © Estate of Paul Henry, IVARO, 2021.

Room 16

Paul Henry (1876–1958), Launching the Currach, 1910–1911

Paul Henry was born in Belfast, the son of Reverend Robert Mitchell Henry and Kate Ann Berry. He studied in the Belfast School of Art and, like many Irish artists at the time, travelled to Paris. While there, he took classes in the Académie Julian and James McNeill Whistler’s Académie Carmen.

In 1903, Henry married Grace Mitchell, a Scottish-born painter. You can see her work in the same room, when you visit the Gallery, or explore her work online here.

  • Which paintings do you prefer?
  • What makes you say that?

In the summer of 1910, Grace and Paul travelled to Achill Island, off the west coast of Ireland. Paul Henry was enthralled by the local people and their way of life. They later returned and lived there from 1912 to 1919.

Paul Henry was one of the founding members of the Society of Dublin Painters and exhibited regularly throughout his life. During the 1920s, his landscapes were reproduced as posters to promote tourism in Ireland. His works became iconic and was associated with Ireland.

  • Have you seen any of his other works?
  • What do you like or not like about Henry’s work?

Henry’s work creates a great sense of atmosphere. When you look at this painting, imagine you are on the beach watching the men launch the boat.

  • What do you smell? What do you hear?
  • What do you feel?
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An oil painting of a city scene. On the quays, a stall is selling books, with people gathered around looking. A woman stands by the wall, holding a child. In the background there's a bridge, and buildings silhouetted on the pink-grey sky of dusk. Walter Frederick Osborne (1859-1903), Dublin Streets: a Vendor of Books, 1889. Photograph © National Gallery of Ireland

Room 17

Walter Frederick Osborne (1859–1903), Dublin Streets: a Vendor of Books, 1889

  • Can you tell where in Dublin this was painted?
  • Are there any distinctive landmarks?

Dublin has changed a lot, but you might recognise the five lamps from O’Connell Bridge or the top of the Customs House in the background.

Walter Frederick Osborne stood on Aston Quay, on the south bank of the River Liffey, to achieve this view. He was heavily influenced by artists in Brittany who painted ‘en plein air’, or outdoors, to paint light and atmosphere as accurately as possible.

  • Do you think he achieved a sense of the day’s atmosphere in this painting? 
  • Look closely at the painting; can you see Osborne used soft lines at certain parts of the painting?

This technique, the soft light, and painting outdoors were all techniques he picked up from the Impressionists in Europe. Osborne was even called the ‘Irish Impressionist’ by some. 

He was born in Dublin, the son of artist William Osborne (1823–1901), who specialised in paintings of animals. The younger Osborne studied at the Royal Hibernian Academy and Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. He won a scholarship to the Royal Dublin Society, and eventually travelled to Antwerp to attend the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts. He travelled for his work, but returned each year to spend winters in Ireland. He was a well-liked and well-respected artist.

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A stained glass work showing a figure in red, holding a staff, holding aloft a child in white, with a halo, who is raising a hand. At the bottom left of the glass is a fish. Evie Hone (1894-1955), Saint Christopher, c.1940s.
Presented, John Ross, through the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland, in memory of Dr Michael Wynne sometime Keeper of the Gallery, 2005.
© Estate of Evie Hone. © National Gallery of Ireland.

Room 20

Evie Hone (1894–1955), Saint Christopher, c.1940s

Evie Hone was born in Dublin on 22 April 1894. She studied in London and Paris with Mainie Jellett, whose work we saw in Room 15. Hone exhibited in Dublin from 1924 onwards, sometimes with Jellett. 

Can you see any similarities in the work of Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone?

Hone focused on painting and stained glass throughout her career, producing over 150 stained glass pieces in her lifetime. She was raised in the Protestant faith, but in 1937 she converted to Catholicism and her work became more religious.

This work depicts Saint Christopher. He swore to serve Jesus Christ and devoted his life to carrying the weak and the poor across a river. One day, he was carrying a child who seemed to be getting heavier and heavier. The child revealed himself to be Jesus and explained that the weight he placed on Christopher represented the weight of the world. He told Christopher told to bury a palm staff in the ground, which blossomed overnight.

  • In this stained glass piece, how do you know the child is Jesus?
  • Can you see Saint Christopher’s staff?

Evie Hone was influenced by cubism, as Jellett was, but also took inspiration from early Italian painters, French cathedrals and medieval Irish carvings.

  • Try searching for these styles online and look for similarities between them and Hone’s style. Do you think they work when applied to stained glass?
Francis Danby (1793-1861), 'The Opening of the Sixth Seal', 1828. © National Gallery of Ireland. Francis Danby (1793-1861), 'The Opening of the Sixth Seal', 1828. © National Gallery of Ireland.

Room 21

Francis Danby (1793–1861), The Opening of the Sixth Seal, 1828

  • What do you think of when you hear the word landscape?
  • Is this painting similar to what you had in mind?

It depicts one of the stages of the end of the world, as outlined in the Book of Revelations (6:12-17). In the Bible story, God opens the sixth seal on a scroll and the earth is torn apart.

This type of landscape represents the power of God through nature. Translating religious messages into landscapes was one of the techniques used by some artists in Europe in the 1800s, called the Sublime and the Beautiful. Artists who painted in this movement wanted to express how powerful God is and how powerless humans are.

  • Do you feel that in this painting?
  • How has Danby portrayed this?
    • Small figures in a large landscape
    • Fear expressed in the figures poses or movements
    • Dramatic natural phenomenon, e.g. lighting, lava, storm clouds
    • Chiaroscuro, high contrast between light and dark
    • Biblical or literary reference

Look around Room 21 and see if you can spot any other landscapes that might have used similar techniques. They may not be quite as dramatic as Danby’s painting, so look closely!

Explore further
A view from above of red and orange rooftops in a green landscape Mary Swanzy (1882-1978), Pattern of Rooftops, Czechoslovakia, c.1920-1922.

Room 5

Mary Swanzy (1882–1978), Pattern of Rooftops, Czechoslovakia, c.1920–22

We have already looked at several Modernist art movements on this tour, including expressionism and a style of cubism. Modernism in art was not always readily accepted in Ireland during the 1800s and 1900s. It took artists like Mary Swanzy to champion Modernism in Ireland and make it a part of the history of Irish art.

Swanzy was born in Dublin. She studied art at the Metropolitan School of Art and in the studio of May Manning, and also in Versailles, France and Freiburg, Germany. In 1905, she moved to Paris and exhibited alongside artists like Picasso and Braque. Throughout her career, she exhibited in Dublin, Paris and London, and remained in good standing with internationally recognised artists like Henry Moore, William Scott and Marc Chagall.

This painting seems to combine two modernist styles: Fauvism and Vorticism. Fauvist artists use bright colours and alter realism in favour of a more painterly style, whereas Vorticism used lines and shapes to draw the viewers eye to the centre of the canvas.

  • How does Swanzy use these styles in this painting?

The strong colours on the roofs of the house and the swirling lines of the paths and house combine Fauvism and Vorticism to draw you into the landscape.

  • Do you think this is effective?
  • What makes you say that?
Roderic O'Conor (1860-1940), 'Bretonne', c.1903-1904. © National Gallery of Ireland. Roderic O'Conor (1860-1940), 'Bretonne', c.1903-1904. © National Gallery of Ireland.

Room 4

Roderic O'Conor (1860–1940), Bretonne, c.1903–1904

Roderic O’Conor is often described as Ireland’s first modernist painter.

He was born in Roscommon to a wealthy family. He studied art in the Metropolitan School of Art and at the Royal Hibernian Academy, both in Dublin. O’Conor also copied from the Gallery’s collection regularly as part of his artistic education.

  • Can you see influences from the collection in this work?
  • What works from the Gallery does it remind you of?

O’Conor travelled to France in the late 1880s. He exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants with Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat.

  • Can you see the influence of their loose brushwork and bright colours in this work?

In 1893, O’Conor’s father died, leaving him financially independent. Around this time, he became friends with Paul Gauguin at the School of Pont Aven. Gauguin became known for painting local women in the areas to which he travelled, and in this painting, O’Conor is doing the same.

This young woman from Brittany, in her traditional clothing, looks out at the viewer with a strong, confident gaze. While the subject matter might be similar to Gauguin, O’Conor puts his own style of painting into this portrait. He uses a soft warmer light and detailed brushwork on the woman’s face, while creating a flowing effect of various colours in the background.

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Acrylic on canvas, with thin coloured lines (blue, yellow, orange, green, black) intersecting across a pale blue-grey canvas Brian O'Doherty (b.1928), Ogham on Broadway, 2003.

Room 1

Brian O'Doherty (b.1928), Ogham on Broadway, 2003

  • How would you describe this painting?
  • Do you see the potential for a language to exist within it?

Ogham is an ancient Irish script made up entirely of vertical and horizontal lines. Here, Brian O’Doherty is combining this script with references to Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), in which he created a kind of visual musical rhythm through lines and small black blocks.

  • Can you see a rhythm in this painting?

Mondrian’s painting was on display in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, while O’Doherty was living there in the 1960s. In this painting, from 2003, he is bringing an ancient Irish script to a contemporary American audience.

O'Doherty began working as a doctor in Ireland. In the late 1950s, he became an artist, critic, writer, filmmaker, and educator. He works in various media, including installation art. Throughout his career, O’Doherty has focused on aesthetic discourse, history, language, the self and the role of art institutions in displaying, promoting and elevating art.

His first performance work in 1972, called Name Change, saw him take on the artistic persona of Patrick Ireland, in protest against the killing of civil rights marchers in Derry. This became one of his most well-known artistic pieces. In 2008, he symbolically buried an effigy of Patrick Ireland on the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

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A view of the Gallery's Millennium Wing. The walls are white, and the ceiling is high. To the left, there is a large, colourful tapestry hanging on the wall. Millennium Wing, featuring Louis le Brocquy's The Triumph of Cuchulaínn.

Millennium Wing

Louis Le Brocquy (1916–2012), The Triumph of Cuchulaínn, 2002

  • What do you think of this artwork?
  • Do you think it works well in this space?
  • What makes you say that?
  • Can you imagine it hanging anywhere else in the Gallery?

This tapestry depicts a scene from an eighth-century Irish folklore epic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, more commonly known as the Táin. Cúchulainn, a half-human half-god-like figure, is the hero of the story, saving his people and working through various trials and challenges.

Mrs Carmel Naughton commissioned and donated this tapestry to the National Gallery of Ireland. It was part of the Millennium Wing addition to the Gallery, which opened in 2002. It is actually quite a heavy artwork and hangs from a special type of Velcro.

While Le Brocquy is the artist behind the work, as he designed the piece, it was actually woven in the historical region of Aubusson, France, by expert weavers (known as lissiers) from the award-winning studio Atelier René Duché. It took over 3,400 hours to complete, and involved four weavers working for five months.

There are other works by Le Brocquy in the Gallery’s collection. Did you spot one of them in the Irish Rooms? It is a very different style and palette.

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