Aloysius O’Kelly (1853-1936)

b. 3 July, 1853, Dublin; son of John and Bridget O’Kelly, and grandson of a blacksmith and dray-builder on his father’s side while his mother [née Lawlor] was a member of a successful artistic family - the sculptor John Lawlor being her uncle; on the death of her husband [var. husband’s father] in 1861, Mrs. O’Kelly moved to London where her br. John was a successful sculptor who took charge of Aloysius’s training;

studied in Paris with the realist academician Jean-Léon Gérôme, a br. being a Fenian activist and associates being Paris Communards; frequently visited Brittany to paint during 1870s and 1880s and befriended Thomas Hovenden, an American painter born in Cork; contrib. engravings to Illustrated London News and Pictorial World, sustaining stereotype of a violent peasantry and besieged landlord, 1879, while living by Lough Fee in Connemara during the Land War; produced distinctive oil canvases of peasant life on western seaboard;

exhibited “Mass in a Connemara Cabin”, a large canvas, in the Paris Salon, 1884, and also in London at the Irish Exhibition at Olympia in 1888 and the RHA in 1889; chronicled the British campaign against the Mahdi in the late 1880s and subsequently visited Cairo; an exhibition of his work at the Hugh Lane (Dublin City) Gallery was curated by in 1999; emigrated to New York, 1895; naturalised as an American citizen in 1901; painted genre pictures inspired by Mark Twain and autumnal scenes in Maine; d. 12 Jan. 1936; his “Mass in a Connemara Cabin”, was presumed lost but was returned to Ireland by the Archbishop O’Brien of Edinburgh in 2002.

[ top ]

Mass in a Connemara Cabin

Niamh O’Sullivan, ‘The Mystery of the Lost Painting: [Mass in a Connemara Cabin]’, in The Irish Times, Weekend (2 Nov. 2002), p.6 [see extract]; Niamh O’Sullivan, Aloysius O’Kelly: Art, Nation, Empire (Field Day Pub./NDU 2010), 358pp. See also Margarita Cappock, et al., in Homan Potterton, ed., Irish Arts Review Yearbook, 12 (1996), and CIRCA (1999); Fintan Cullen, review of Niamh O’Sullivan’s Aloysius O’Kelly: Art, Nation, Empire in The Irish Times (1 May 2010), Weekend, p.11 [see extract].

[ top ]

Niamh O’Sullivan, ‘The Mystery of the Lost Painting: [Mass in a Connemara Cabin]’, in The Irish Times, Weekend (2 Nov. 2002, p.6), calls it a ‘a visual exploration of the complex relationship between priests and people in the west of Ireland during the Land War period ... an indisputably provocative subject, painted on a large scale’ and ‘highly significant, not only for Irish art history but for many of the disciplines which constitute Irish studies in general.’ The painting has been returned to Ireland after 100 years by Archb. Keith Patrick O’Brien on a long-term loan, arriving on 4 Nov. 2002, following the researches of Fr. Richard Reid, a Redemptorist priest in St Patrick’s Parish (“Little Ireland”), Edinburgh, who trawled internet and found a CIRCA article on the painter arising from following the retrospective exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery in 1999-2000. O’Sullivan writes: ‘Notwithstanding the accoutrements of religion - the altar and the image of the Sacred Heart on the wall - Father Swanston, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Kent University, suggested alternatively that there is a subversive, anti-clerical element in the painting, perceiving a depressed people, obliged to maintain an obsequious relationship with the “whey-faced young priest who knows nothing, but dominates them”’, and further that the painting originally ‘elicited virulent reaction both within its own clerical ranks and among its flock.’ James J. O’Kelly, br. of the artist, was a high-ranking member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood [IRB] and Aloysius O’Kelly himself documented the formation of the Land League in the west of Ireland for the Illustrated London News in 1879, within weeks of the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Knock. Further, ‘When exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1884, Aloysius O’Kelly flagged his allegiances by submitting it, not from one, but unnecessarily from two addresses, that of his brother, as well as that of Henri Rochefort, the notorious Parisian Communard.’

Julian Campbell, ‘Impressionism’, in W. J. McCormack, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Irish Literature (Oxford 1999; 2001), Some of his Breton beach and harbour scenes have a light touch, and use vivid hues such as turquoise, pink, ultramarine and gold, while Corpus Christie Procession, Brittany (Allied Irish Bank Coll.) is surprisingly “Impressionistic”, in its sketchy, sunlit atmosphere. However, when O’Kelly visited Cairo in the late 1880s, he reverted to a more academic style, in the manner of Gerome.’ (p.298.)

Fintan Cullen, review of Niamh O’Sullivan’s Aloysius O’Kelly: Art, Nation, Empire in The Irish Times (1 May 2010), Weekend, p.11: [...] ‘As O’Sullivan rightly points out, O’Kelly learnt much from Gérôme and they were both genre painters who achieved what she calls “a similar crystalline pellucidity”. / Her chapter on O’Kelly in Ireland in the 1880s during a period of serious land agitation is very well told as is her careful and often painstaking explanation of wood engravings. / Equally, O’Sullivan’s chapters on O’Kelly’s time in Africa are measured and she makes a good case for the artist offering an alternative form of Orientalism. The problem arises with the rest of O’Kelly’s career; after Ireland and Africa, he turns into a rather unexceptional genre painter of Breton peasants and pleasant New England views. / Niamh O’Sullivan displays great admiration for her subject and continually requests us to remember Aloysius O’Kelly’s republican background. / As such, O’Sullivan asks us, sometimes with the help of theorists such as Roland Barthes, to consider the “inherent ambivalences in even the most realistic images which allow them to be read in different ways, making them palatable to audiences on both sides of the divide”. Here she is referring to O’Kelly images of the Irish Land War but it is an observation that we are invited to consider throughout this book. Such an exhortation is welcome as O’Sullivan shows great determination in exploring a complex life, a confusing corpus of work and a story which is sometimes close to a boy’s own adventure. [...]’ Incls. reps. of “Vieille Bretonne de Pont-Aven”, port. oil; “The Harem Guard”, landscape oil; “The Musician”, landscape port.; and “The State of Ireland: Arrested Under the Coercion ACt - A Sketch at Roscommon Railway Station”, engraving.

[ top ]