Published: March 20, 2012
The McMullen Museum of Art presents “Rural Ireland: The Inside Story,” an exclusive exhibition that introduces American viewers to many recently discovered genre paintings of Nineteenth Century rural interiors. The exhibition is on view to June 3.
In depicting how Irish country people conducted business, worshipped, mourned, arranged their homes and educated and entertained themselves, the exhibition offers new visual evidence about the varied lives of a politically marginalized population.
Inspired by recent scholarship, it reveals that contrary to earlier assumptions, artists working in Ireland during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries frequently turned to the lives of the country’s rural poor for subject matter. The exhibition also challenges assumptions that artists working in Ireland painted only the “big houses” and landscapes of an Anglo-Irish elite society.
Although the works on display reveal poverty and deprivation during the Famine era, they convey aesthetic pleasures, spiritual satisfactions and tenants’ negotiations with a growing consumer economy.
The exhibition comprises works of art from such lenders as the National Gallery of Ireland, the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, the National Library of Ireland, the Ulster Museum, the National Gallery of Scotland, as well as from a range of smaller public and private collections in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“Rural Ireland” offers a selection of 65 paintings that depicts the lives of ordinary families and reveals the range of classes living in the Irish countryside. Works are organized thematically: “Ways of Living,” “Mourning, Celebrating and Worshipping,” “Working,” “Reading and Writing” and “Law Breaking.” A concluding section, “Twentieth Century Paintings,” depicts both the continuity and change in more recent rural interiors.
The exhibition also displays many examples of the household objects visible in the paintings †furniture, cooking utensils, baskets and ceramics †as well as archaeological shards excavated from Famine cabins and works from the university’s Burns Library. The multidimensional exhibition includes a reconstructed cabin hearth surrounded by objects found in a typical Nineteenth Century home in order to draw visitors into the interior spaces depicted by artists.
Paintings of interiors focus on such iconic scenes as the Irish wake in Frederic William Burton’s “The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child,” and on rituals of courtship, holiday celebrations and country dances. Several images illustrate women’s traditional work, and Aloysius O’Kelly’s watercolor “Mass in a Connemara Cabin” turns with a sympathetic realism to the traditional custom of holding a “station” or mass in a rural household.
Works by painters such as David Wilkie and Harry Jones Thaddeus depict the dark side of rural poverty driving Irish countrymen into illegal activities like whiskey distilling and poaching to survive. Margaret Allen’s painting “Bad News in Troubled Times” suggests the gathering post-Famine political tensions as parents face a son’s probable arrest.
The museum is on the Boston College Campus in Devlin Hall at 140 Commonwealth Avenue. For information, www.bc.edu/artmuseum or 617-552-8100.
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