Ireland from the 18th Century to the 20th Century

Subject: History
Pages: 16
Words: 4452
Reading time:
17 min
Study level: Undergraduate


Art has always been a means to reflect reality. In different ages, painters focused on various “crucial questions” of political, social and cultural character that were represented in the painting, sculpture and architecture. Painting is one of the most “expressive” forms of art that has always been a reflection of the cultural, political and social changes in the society. The Irish art of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries was focusing on the national subjects, in particular, on the subjects of political independence, social unity and cultural uniqueness. The idea of “Irishness” runs through the three pictures under consideration: 18th century painting; Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee by Marcus Gheervaerts, 1594; the 19th century The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Daniel Maclise 1854; and the 20th century Seán Keating’s Night’s Candle’s are Burnt Out.

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The interest towards historic subjects began emerging in the 17th century when the country was in the period characterized by social and political changes. As Dr. John Turpin (1989/1990) mentions, “the most fruitful periods for painting of contemporary Irish history were usually those periods of greatest political crisis and excitement such as the Jacobite Wars, the Volunteers, the Land War and the War of Independence” (p. 233). The focus on the politics and national freedom passed to the 18th century. In the 18th century, the crisis in the “interpretation of Irish identity” arose. It was questioned whether the country should be visualize from the perspective of the iconography of the past, or, or from the contemporary perspective (Cullen, 1997). The study by James Christen Steward (1999) provides that 19th and early 20th century history painting referred to “to confront the deep political and social divisions and violence in Ireland today” (n. p.). As the author indicates, modern Irish art emerged from the cultural revival and desire to distinct threats that dominated in the Irish painting of the 19th century. (Steward, 1999). It has been proposed that close examination of the paintings of the Irish painters can provide an insight into the way how the authors referred to Ireland through the perspective of their works.

Over the ages Ireland has been suffering from wars and foreign influences. The history of Ireland can be seen as a history of constant struggling for independence and preserving unique cultural heritage and political independence. Thus, the historic paintings of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, which are under consideration in this paper drive their subjects from classical history of Ireland and focus on political and cultural aspects of the past and their relevance to the future development of the country.

Research questions

  1. What are the main ideas of the 18th, 19th and 20th Irish painting? Why the paintings by Gheervaerts, Daniel Maclise and Seán Keating are considered to be the ones of the most prominent paintings of the centuries when they were created?
  2. The paper also explores the question of the visual representation of Irish history from the perspective of the 18th, 19th and the 20th century historic paintings by Marcus Gheervaerts, Daniel Maclise and Seán Keating that focus on the idea of “Ireshness” and independence and social identity.
  3. What political, cultural and historical events influenced the choice of the subject of each painting and how the paintings reflect the authors’ vision of the contemporary Ireland?


This study is mostly based on the results of the previous research of the 18th, 19th and 20th century painting provided by Fintan Cullen. His study shows that the core idea of all paintings that presented the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was to define national subjects in art. We suggest that history paintings are the best examples of how cultural, social and political events can be interpreted and described in art.

As it has already been mentioned, Irish history painting of the centuries 18-20th, dealt with political, social and cultural issues. The painters referred to the images and myths of the past in order to express their vision of the contemporary society through the perspective of the past events.

In order to analyze how Ireland was visualized in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, we analyzed primary and secondary sources. The painting of three painters Marcus Gheervaerts, Daniel Maclise and Seán Keating, each of them representing his own century, were chosen for the analysis. Each of the paintings was discussed through the perspective of the historical, political and cultural changes that occurred in the country. Thus, we analyzed sources that provided critical analysis of the paintings. However, it was not enough to create the general idea of how the Irish art changed over the ages and how artistic vision of political, social and cultural events evolved by the end of the 20th century.

Thus, in order to answer these questions, we used a historical approach to the analysis of the paintings. It helped us understand the historical basis of the pictures. The study of the history of each period was important to understand the context of each painting. For example, why Captain Thomas Lee in the Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee was depicted as a tall and noble man, as opposed to the appearance of the real captain? Thus, the analysis of the history of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were crucial for the understanding of the artist’s perspectives. Furthermore, apart from the paintings by Marcus Gheervaerts and Seán Keating, which refer their subjects taken from the contemporary Irelad, the work by Daniel Maclise, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, refers to the events of the 12th century. Thus, the historical analysis of the 12th century events (presented in the picture) should be provided. The historical analysis of the Irish history of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries provided us with the opportunity to get an in-depth insight into the historical basis of the pictures, and better understand the artist’s intentions and how it helped express the cultural context of the paintings? For this reason, we paid considerable attention to the sources that explored history of the Ireland and that do not have direct relations to the paintings.

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Political issues required special attention as well. For this reason, we analyzed the political events that took place in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries from the political perspective and explored how they influenced the art of the painters under consideration. The question: “Why national identity was the core idea of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries?” was a leading one while analyzing political context of each painting.

We should not forget about social context of each picture. The social context of each painting was explored through the perspective of the periods when the works were written, and through the perspective of the artist’s biographies (the biographical information is important t understand the artists’ personal opinion which is also should be considered when analyzing paintings).

Literature Review

General Overview

The Irish History is marked by constant fight for presenting cultural identity and feeing country from foreign dominance. It also reflects the aspiration of the Irish people for shaping and demonstrating their national peculiarities distinguished from those presented in the Great Britain, including freedom, savage, and longing to independence (Turpin, 1989/1990). On the one hand, the pictures under consideration highlight different dimensions of Irish history, beginning from the events connected to Norman invasion, Elizabethan era of conquest programs, and ending with contemporary vision of Ireland as the Free State. On the other hand, all the pictures from different periods mark different aspects of political and cultural life in Ireland. Hence, Gheeraets’s work discloses the period of the Tudor monarchy, the Elizabethan era where Captain Thomas Lee is depicted as the brightest representative of the Irish rebellious spirit. Maclise’s vision of medieval Ireland is represented through depicting marriage as a symbol of the political union. Finally, Keating’s contemporary portrayal of Ireland is an allegorical interpretation of the country’s future. Despite the difference in time span, all pictures disclose the significance of Irish cultural heritage as well as the strength of national spirit. In this respect, most of the researches and articles are dedicated to evaluating the most important historical events from different angles.

Contributions to the Analysis of Marcus Gheeraets’s Captain Thomas Lee

Historical Perspective

The Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee (Gheeraets, 1594) as an English glorious leader provides rebellious tendencies of the Irish people against British invasions. Frivolous depiction and savage landscape signifies the reluctance of the Irish people to subject to the Tudor monarchy.

In the studies provided by De Breffney (1984), it is possible to draw more information on the historical and political portrait of the Elizabethan officer. The author attains much importance to depicting the English colonizer in the form of barelegged foot soldier. Only expensive pistol, lace, and helmet testify to the officer veritable origin. Further evaluation of the picture is connected with biographical overview of the Captain’s family, achievements, and military service. In such a manner, the author emphasizes the importance of this historical figure in the history of Ireland.

Due to the fact that Gheeraets’s painting is strongly associated with Elizabethan period, it is possible to connect this picture with the reign of Tudor monarchy, particularly to its policy toward the Irish people. In this respect, Canny’s (1976) work discloses the patterns set to conquer the country and join Ireland to England. The picture skillfully unites the rebellious spirit of the Irish people who value their national identity and pressure on the part of the Elizabethan country. Similar views are supported by Morgan (2005) who believes that England significantly affected Gaelic Ireland by its destructive and humiliating policy.

Aside from the plots presented in the picture, particular attention should be paid to artists’ representation of figures on canvas. In this respect, Millar (1963) suggests that all portraits, including that of Thomas of Lee disclose a single artistic personality through composition, tone, and execution presented in limitations, tender perception, and peculiar charm.

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Political Perspective

The portrait of Captain Thomas Lee by Gheeraets the Younger also presents political ends pursued by the artists. Specifically, King discloses political, cultural and historical undercurrent drawn from the details presented on the picture. Hence, specific attention is paid to the landscape recalling the place of the Erne Ford Battle take place in 1953 (King, 2005 p. 117). The author also noticed the symbolic hues represented through oak three under which the main figure stand. According to King (2005), the tree may symbolize protecting patronage, Sir Henry Lee. While investigating Lee’s biography, King (2005) also sheds light on another paradox: though Lee is disguised as a wild Irish Kerne, he supports imperialism and defends Elizabeth’s right to control Ireland. Similarly to King (2005), De Breffney (1984) agrees with this idea as well.

Accordint to Morgan (1993), Lee was presented not as a self-conscious colonialist, but as an imprudent opportunist (132). In this respect, the English officer personifies the mixture of the Old English culture and Irish identity. He knew the value of accepting the wild methods of invading Ireland as well as brutal techniques for fighting against the Irish people.

Cultural Perspective

Aside from historical and political perspective, the Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee represents the main tendencies of Renaissance culture. Judging from this perspective, Smith (2009) states that “[t]he organization of the space is curious, through. If, to a modern eye, it seems to lack the depth provided by geometrical perspective, it may be that another kind of perspectives governs the points of view.” (p. 74). In addition to this, Gostelow (1998) highlights the extravagance of the captain’s attire, “with blackwork floral patterns on his open shirt and sleeves” (p. 62). In such a manner, the painting reflects the central them of Gheeraets’ specific emphasis on details surrounded by solid furnishing items.

Overview of the Themes in Daniel Maclise’s The Marriage of Strongbow and Eva

Historical Perspective

In the studies presented by Lynch (2002), the author argues that the picture describes on the most important events in the political history of Ireland, the marriage of Richard FitzGilbert, the Norman leader, and Aoife, the daughter of King of Leinster. This alliance was created in return for help promised by FitzGilbert’s army in defeating the Irish King’s enemy. At the same time, the marriage meant the lost of hope for the Irish people to get hold of control on their lands. In this respect, the painting touches upon a plethora of contradicting issues analyzed in the context of the Irish history and visual representation of the past events. In addition, the author emphasizes Maclise’s (1854) successful choice of the time period, the event, and the subject of the painting.

Continuing the discussion of cultural perspective, Kujipers (2009) refers to the Irish harp as to the antiquarian representation of Ireland’s state emblem representing the symbol of Leinster province. The harp is help by a little woman representing the ancient music in Ireland. Hence, a female figure embodies the patriotic intensions and political goals of the medieval Ireland, notwithstanding the Norma invasion. This is why Turpin (1985) accentuates a crucial role of Maclise being an illustrator of the Irish national identity and independence.

Political Perspective

It should be recognized that the painting also represent an important political event because the marriage was regarded as a political agreement between the Norman invaders and the Irish government. One the one hand, Maclise realistically depicts the history of the Medieval Ireland when the Irish people had to accept the aid and submit to Normans. On the other hand, the painting is the representation of strong Irish spirit and will, their longing to freedom and independence despite the historic and political circumstances. Reflecting on the events happened in eleven century, the nineteenth century’s painting is a new version of the depiction of the events.

As a proof of the above, Hooper suggests that The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife “…depicts the cataclysmic consequences of the twelfth-century Norman-Gaelic conflict in term of both architectural ruin and the ruin of human bodies” (p. 81). At the same time, the work also represents the realities of the nineteenth century. Historical consciousness and faith in the urge of preserving historical record and visual means are the core characteristics of cultural nationalism. In this respect, Leak (2007) suggests that antiquarian research on the painting has created a solid platform for countering the myths and errors propagandized by imperialist movements. In this respect, the painting creates a more emotional background for analyzing the Irish history.

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Cultural Perspective

Before analyzing cultural dimensions of the painting, it is purposeful to consider the main tendencies and patterns of representing Ireland in the nineteenth century. In particular, this period was marked by the rise of Irish cultural nationalism being the leading force in the literary, artistic, and political life of the country. The self-image of Irish national identity is revealed through tradition, permanence, and continuity in the light of political and historical divisions (Leersen, 1996). As a result, Maclise’s painting cultivates the glorious past of Medieval Ireland, provides his own vision of femininity, and a political outlook on the significance of marriage.

The national and cultural images are, first of all, represented in the details depicted by Maclise, such Celtic ornament, the symbol of Irish eternal aspiration for independence and freedom (McCaw, 2004, p. 56). Such also signifiers the fall of Celtic civilization as a result of the marriage between the Norman leader and the daughter of the Irish king. This marriage is a symbol of political union, an agreement between two countries. Reference to Irish ornament and architecture is presented as reference to authenticity of Irish traditions and culture (Cullen, 1997). While presenting the details of the culture, Maclise as if expresses his pro-Irish nostalgia for the fallen Celtic world. The defeated country is allegorically represented in the front of the picture where corpses of people are laying down near the crowd celebrating the “political” wedding.

Cullen (1997) also states that, despite the political coloring of the marriage, the painting’s scene is also presented as an explicit symbol of family, “not just a domestic union but a painting that was specifically commissioned to record the political union of Britain and Ireland” (p. 49). As a proof, Cosgrove (1994) support the political and cultural significance attained to marriage in the Middle Ages.

Future vision of Ireland in Sean Keating’s Night’s Candles are Burnt Out

New Vision of Irish history

It seems to be a paradox that the Irish painting in the twentieth century managed to preserve the traditional tendencies of depicting the political, cultural and historical aspect of life in Ireland through such themes as tradition, respect, national identity, and independent spirit (Jacobsen, 1994). Sean Keating is one of such painters whose perception of being truly Irish was connected with conservative outlooks on the Irish traditions (Cullen, 1976). Nevertheless, many researchers also disclose the progressive directions of Keating’s creative work.

In the book by Jacobsen (1994), the painting is presented on the front cover, implying that it correlates closely to the themes revealed by the author. In this respect, the painting under analysis discloses the transformation of Ireland from the developing country enduring war, to the emergence of a new country characterizing by prosperity and independence. In other words, Keating’s (1925) Night Candle’s Are Burnt Out is a symbolic representation of the Free State. Hence, the country of the future is an example of modernized economy and industry.

Kennedy (2011) and Harvie (2008) also consider the painting as the evidence of representing Ireland as a modernistic country, but from different perspectives. To enlarge on this issue, the former argues that Keating supports unique traditionalistic tendencies in the light of new modern opportunities for development. In contrast, the former is more concerned with a new pattern the Irish identity focusing international relations.

Due to the fact that the painting contain two opposite representations – the modernistic and traditional – one, Gillespie and Kennedy (1994) as well as Holt (2002) insist on the idea that the author intends to demonstrate the conflict between these two worlds. Such an allegorical representation of social development allows to draw the parallels between the past and the future (McCormack and Gillan, 2001, p. 319).

Cultural and political perspectives with regard to previous paintings

Cultural, political and historical aspects are brightly demonstrated by Keating’s painting and, therefore, it is closely related to the painting reflecting similar thematic directions. Specifically, all the pictures under analysis rely on traditional representations of the Irish national identity and rich cultural heritage.

In the studies presented by Hill (2010) and Ferriter (2005), particular reference is made on the analysis of transformations occurred to the country in the course of history. Specifically, the scholars track the shifts in terms of political and social perceptions. Despite the fact that Keating introduces an allegory of a new country, it still refers to the previous historic failures, such as Norman invasions and attempts to acquire the independence status and protect human rights..

The evidence of folk roots are also supported by Cusack (2001) and Scanlan (2006) who are congruent with the idea that the Irish identity originates from the events dating back to Norman invasion and the Elizabethan era, when a severe pressure contributed to shaping a harsh Irish character and mentality. Specifically, Keating’s emphasis on representing the rural landscapes signifies the main traits of the Irish nature forming the character of the Irish people.

Despite symbolic and traditional representations of the Irish culture, Keating’s painting can also be considered as the embodiment of social realism. The realistic elements are disclosed through such components as “…the family looking to the future, the entrepreneur confronting the armed man…and the skeleton of times past” (Hill, 2010, p. 605). With regard to the above, the presented painting also correlated to other two artistic works under analysis.

In whole, Keating’s works represent Ireland through traditions, historically important events happened in the past and future representation of Ireland as an independent country. Similar implications are also presents in Maclise and Gheeraets’s paintings. In addition, all the work reveal the core features of the Irish mentality, including permanence, insistence, and conservatism in achieving goals.

Results and Discussion

Having provided the analysis of the three pictures we came to the results that follow. First of all, the three paintings under consideration were created in different periods, address different subjects and use different painting techniques. However, they are united by a common idea, the idea of freedom, independence, strong cultural identity and bright future. Despite the difference in time span, the authors of the paintings focus attention on the Irish cultural heritage, as well as the strengthening of national spiritual development. Thus, most of the researches and articles that have been analyzed in this paper are dedicated to evaluating the most important historical events from different dimensions. Thus, the 18th century painting by Marcus Gheervaerts Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee, 1594 focuses on the period of the Tudor monarchy and depicts Captain Thomas Lee as a hero and image of national spirit. The 19th century The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Daniel Maclise created in 1854, addresses the glory past of the country and uses the scene of the medieval marriage as a symbol of the union; finally, the 20th century Seán Keating’s Night’s Candle’s are Burnt Out provides “a double-side view” of the events that took place in the 20th century Ireland. On the one hand, Seán Keating addresses a contemporary history of the country, on the other hand, he provides a modernist vision of the future development of Ireland. Thus, the three works under consideration provide a visual representation of the country through the lens of interaction of art and politics. They present the country by means of symbols, allegories and images that reflect its cultural, political and national development.


When providing the historical analysis of the paintings, we met the limitations considering the historical concepts of each painting. In the literature sources analyzed, the main emphasis is done on a particular aspect of each painting. Thus, there is no enough information on the social basis of the Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee by Marcus Gheervaerts. The major accent is done on the political questions addressed by the author. At the same time, the sources used for the analysis of The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Daniel Maclise do not deal with the historical context of the picture and address only social issues. Finally, the work by Seán Keating’s Night’s Candle’s are Burnt Out addresses political questions and there is little known about the cultural context of this very painting. Thus, we had to overcome these limitations analyzing literature that is not related to the art, but deals with social, economic and cultural development of the country. Thus, history books appeared to be a great help.


There is no sufficient information on the analysis of the paintings under consideration. There are few sources that analyze how the works of art created in particular periods presents the country (Ireland) visually. However, it is one of the most important questions of the modern Irish art. The three periods, 18th, 19th, and 20th century are significant periods in the history of the country. During these centuries, Irish national identity was formed and developed. The history paintings created during these periods provide an in-depth insight into how national, cultural and political identities of the nation were formed. Thus, historians, art historians and sociologists should pay more attention to critical, historical and artistic analysis of the paintings of the periods. The lack of information in these areas considering the analysis of the paintings considered provided a major limitation for our research. This work can become a foundation for the future research in the area. It will be a good starting point for those will research the relations between art and history of Ireland. In addition, the issues of realism and symbolism in the pictures are not addressed in the current literature sources, but mentioned in this research. Thus, the analysis of the historical pictures from the point of view of Irish realism and symbolism can be addressed in future researches. Finally, the given research will make a considerable contribution to the intellectual discourse of the issue. In particular, it will help better understand how Ireland has been represented visually from the 18th century to the 20th century.


The given research faces the question of how the historic paintings of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in particular, 18th century painting Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee by Marcus Gheervaerts, 1594; the 19th century The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Daniel Maclise 1854; and 20th century Seán Keating’s Night’s Candle’s are Burnt Out, drove their subjects from classical history of Ireland and focused on political and cultural aspects of the past and their relevance to the future development of the country.

The research also answers the research questions of the paper. Thus, the main ideas of the 18th, 19th and 20th Irish painting were the ideas of cultural, national and social identity. Those ideas were addressed from various perspectives in different ages. Thus, analyzing the paintings provided in this research, we can come to a conclusion that in the 18th century, the artists looked at Ireland through the lenses of “allegorized iconography of the past”, 19th century historical painting focused on the subject of the glorious past and the 20th century painting provided a new vision of the development of the country and saw it as independent industrialized country, however with unique cultural identity. It can be seen in the academic paintings of Seán Keating. This is why, paintings by Gheervaerts, Daniel Maclise and Seán Keating are considered to be the ones of the most prominent paintings of the centuries when they were created.

The paper also proves that the visual representation of Irish history from the perspective of the 18th, 19th and the 20th century historic paintings by Marcus Gheervaerts, Daniel Maclise and Seán Keating, that focus on the idea of “Ireshness” and independence and social identity, reflect the cultural, social and political changes that occurred in the country during these periods. Thus, the paintings under consideration are the historical paintings and are important in terms of developing of a new approach to the exploration of the Irish cultural and artistic heritage in the context of history, culture and political development. These paintings not only reflect how the artists visualized Ireland, but how it really developed and what moral and ethical principles were important for the people of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition, it should be mentioned, that these pictures can provide an insight into the historical development of the country, as well as in cultural and artistic traditions that dominated during those periods.


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