I’ve been looking at some of Paul Henry’s landscapes recently and thought I might write about them here.
Henry was an Irish artist who was known especially for his West of Ireland landscapes. He was born in Belfast in 1887 and he studied art in Paris before his return to Ireland where he lived and worked on Achill Island (1910-1919) off the Mayo coast for many years. While in Paris, Henry was greatly impressed by the modern avant-garde movement of the time and the bold colourful works of Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gaugain. Landscape painting was no longer just about realism but about colour and energy and the individual mark of the artist’s hand. I love this quote by S.B. Kennedy in his book on Paul Henry where he describes these new ideas of the time:
“Cezanne and Van Gogh saw clearly because they had cast aside all the theories and prejudices of the Schools and were looking at nature as if for the first time, and above all seeing it with emotion.”
This notion of seeing landscape with emotion really resonates with me because it seems to me that this is what painting is all about. I imagine then how Henry must have taken these new ideals and applied them to our own peculiar landscape and weather conditions, without the heat and intensity of the mediterranean sun. He recognised the singular beauty of the landscape and the light in the West of Ireland and he learned to articulate this using his own palette of muted colours. The painting above is called ‘Errigal County Donegal’ (c.1930 Image taken from imma.ie ) and it demonstrates this very well. The setting seems to shimmer in a kaleidoscope of greys tinged with blue and pink against the golds and browns at the base of the painting.
This next image below is an earlier work (c.1922-23) called “The Bog at Evening’. I love the simplicity of this composition – mountain, horizon line, turf and water. I admire the contrast that he has set up between the shadowy dark browns of the turf and purple mountain and the delicate pinks and pastels in the billowing cloud shapes. The reflections of the clouds in the bog water and the low evening light give the painting a perfect stillness where only the evidence of human activity now remains.
Image taken from D7ET website
This next painting is called ‘West of Ireland Cottages’. Once more, the atmosphere dominates this piece, the vastness of the sky and mountains over the small settlement of cottages. The strong blues of the mountains sing against the yellow of the thatch and gold of the bog, a perfect example of how complementary colours can be used together with great effect.
Image taken from Christies.com
This last painting (below) is called Bog Road. It uses similar colours but the tones are more subdued in the top two thirds of the canvas. The lightness of the sky contrasts strongly with the dark stacks of turf. The middle ground is highlighted with a streak of gold where the sun drops down between the clouds and sits beautifully against these ribbons of blue that he uses to describe the receding hills.
Image taken from Mayotoday.ie
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Paul Henry’s work for me is it’s apparent simplicity. Many of his greatest paintings seem at first glance to be composed of a simple arrangement of shapes and colours. It is the degree of complexity and subtlety within these seemingly simple choices of colour, tone, shape and gesture that make them so exceptional in my opinion. As a painter, I have so much to learn from these paintings!
What do you think about them? Do you think that they are relevant to day or have anything to do with modern Ireland?