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Sotheby's, London, The Irish Sale, 6 May 2010
Sold 361,250 GBP - €426,500
Acquired by Mary Rynne in 1943 by whom bequeathed and thence by descent to the present owners
Dublin, 13 Merrion Row, Sculpture by Melanie le Brocquy: Paintings by Louis le Brocquy, December 1942, no.11;
Dublin, National College of Art, Irish Exhibition of Living Art, 1943, no.23;
Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy, 1963, no.137, as A Study in White;
Dublin, The Hugh Lane, Louis le Brocquy: A Retrospective Selection of Oil Paintings 1939 - 1966, November 1966 - January 1967, no. 4, as The Spanish Shawl, a study in white, with tour to the Ulster Museum, Belfast;
Dublin, The Hugh Lane, Irish Art and Modernism 1880 - 1950, 20th September - 10th November 1991, no. 67, illustrated in the catalogue p. 281 and as frontispiece, with tour to the Ulster Museum, Belfast;
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, temporary loan, 2003 - 2010.
LITERATURE AND REFERENCES
A.J. Leventhal, 'The Living Art Exhibition', Irish Art: A Volume of Articles and Illustrations, 1944, p. 88, illustrated p. 91;
S.B. Kennedy, Irish Art and Modernism 1920 - 1949, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Dublin, 1987, vol. 1, pp. 226, 235, 249, illustrated vol.2, plate. 111;
Kenneth McConkey, A Free Spirit: Irish Art 1860 - 1960, 1990, p. 82, illustrated.
'In art historical terms this is one of the most seminal works in twentieth-century Irish art... Spanish Shawl, with its emphasis on the isolation of the individual, even in the company of others, encapsulates the enduring subject-matter of le Brocquy's art...'
(Dr S.B. Kennedy, 'Louis le Brocquy. The Spanish Shawl', Great Irish Artists From Lavery to Le Brocquy, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1997, p. 132)
Painted in 1941, Spanish Shawl, A Study in White, is undoubtedly le Brocquy's most important early masterpiece both in terms of the artist's own development and within the wider canon of Irish Art. It was painted at the artist's family home at 51 Kenilworth Square, Dublin and captures an informal gathering of friends; at the centre of the composition is the model Hazel Malcolm Douglas, on the left is the artist's brother Noel and on the right, strumming a guitar, is his brother-in-law Professor F.S. Stewart who married his sister Melanie. In addition, using the self-portrait device of many of the great masters before him such as Velasquez, le Brocquy has also placed himself within the composition and his own jacket and trousers are just visible in the upper left corner.
The lusciously textured brushstrokes and the fresh, fluid handling immediately indicate le Brocquy's knowledge and understanding of the French Impressionists and in particular, Edouard Manet, whose portrait Eva Gonzales (fig.1, 1870, National Gallery, London) was clearly a key source of inspiration for the present work. In 1938, le Brocquy's mother Sybil had crucially encouraged him to travel to Europe to see the great European examples in the flesh and at the National Gallery in London, he would have been undeniably impressed by the elegant impasto and subtle white tones of Eva Gonzales's dress. He recalled later, '...from the start I've been fascinated by colour in all its aspects... Maybe this could have something to do with my early love of the so-called 'living' whites and greys in the paintings of Edouard Manet and the great Spaniards Goya and Velasquez' (le Brocquy in conversation to Pierre le Brocquy, February 2005). During his 1938 tour, he had also visited Paris where he saw Manet's controversial Olympia at the Jeu de Paume, he went on to Venice and also Geneva where he was able to experience the Spanish masters from the Prado which were being stored in the city during the Spanish Civil War.
Alongside the Spanish Old Masters and French avant-garde modernists such as Manet, le Brocquy was also particularly influenced at the time by the iconic American-born, British-based artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his focus on the relationship between colour and music – he thought of his pictures as Symphonies, Harmonies and Melodies. The focus on the tonal range of white in works such as Symphony in White No. 2, The Little White Girl (fig.2, 1864, Tate Collection, London) was clearly a precedent for the present work. Indeed, the title Spanish Shawl, A Study in White is a direct homage to Whistler himself. le Brocquy explained that he 'became interested in the emotional effect of colour, particularly in the relationship of the chromatic scale in music to the twelve subdivisions of the primary colours, red, yellow and blue... in paintings I made at the time such as A Study in Minor Key (1940) and Spanish Shawl, A Study in White, I did in fact manage to incorporate major and minor 'colour chords' for their emotional resonance' (le Brocquy, 'Artist's Note', Louis le Brocquy, exh.cat., Taylor Galleries, Dublin, 2000). More specifically, he had also noted that the present work 'was painted in the minor key of vermilion – as I conceived it – red-orange, yellow, blue' (the artist, quoted in Louis le Brocquy: A Retrospective Selection of Oil Paintings 1939 - 1966, exh.cat., The Hugh Lane, Dublin 1966, p.16).
Like both Manet's Eva Gonzales and Whistler's Symphony in White No. 2, The Little White Girl, the range of colour in Spanish Shawl, A Study in White is far more complex than both the title and a first glance might suggest. Indeed, on closer inspection, the power of the painting lies in the subtle range of 'major and minor colour chords' that create a rich glow within the composition and imbue the white tones with a deeper and more lasting impression; the complementary colours of yellow and blue are found throughout, notably on the shawl itself and to Noel's shirt, where they heighten the effect of white against the corresponding shadows. Moreover, he chose 'the minor key of vermilion' to define his own jacket in the upper left corner and used it very sophisticatedly throughout the rest of the composition in conjunction with its complement of green to highlight more specific details such as the floral embroidery of the shawl. The artist was clearly revelling in the lessons he had learnt from the European masters and experimenting with his interest in colour and impasto to scintillating effect.
The visual power of these effects was to have a highly important consequence that is of critical significance to 20th Century Irish Art. In 1942, Spanish Shawl, A Study in White was rejected by the Royal Hibernian Academy for its annual exhibition despite the fact that le Brocquy had exhibited there every year since 1937. The Irish Times aptly asked its readers, 'Is the Royal Hibernian Academy going to close down on modernistic painting? The fact that at least two of Ireland's best-known modern painters (Nano Reid and Louis le Brocquy) figure among the 'rejects' this year would seem to suggest that such is the case' (quoted in S.B.Kennedy, Irish Art & Modernism, 1880 – 1950, exh.cat., Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, 1991, p.118). Maine Jellett had also criticised them explaining that she was 'worried for the younger generation' and that 'bad craftsmanship, vulgarity and faulty weak draughtsmanship were its main characteristics... the R.H.A. must not shut its doors to life, otherwise it will of necessity die of senile decay' (Mainie Jellett, quoted ibid., p.116).
It was Sybil, le Brocquy's mother, who suggested organising an alternative exhibition. Louis approached Mainie Jellett and together with his mother and Evie Hone, they all met at le Brocquy's studio at 13 Merrion Row and the concept of The Irish Exhibition of Living Art (I.E.L.A.) was born. Jellett became the first Chairman and Spanish Shawl, A Study in White was prominently included in its first exhibition at the National College of Art in Dublin from 16th September – 9th October 1943.
The importance of the I.E.L.A. cannot be underestimated. It was not simply an alternative exhibition space for pictures that had been rejected by the R.H.A.. More significantly, it was conceived to provide a crucial forum for avant-garde artists that could not be found elsewhere and which served to encourage the exchange of ideas that was critical for the development of Irish Art and to encourage younger generations to break away from what Jellett had termed the 'senile decay' of established convention. Le Brocquy wrote in 1949, 'I dare say no one could have known the utter necessity for such an Exhibition other than we painters nor would anyone else have had the incentive to create such a controversial show as that in '43 in face of such difficulties. We did what had to be done and now today our aims or raison d'être and even our artists are widely accepted...' (le Brocquy, quoted ibid., p.143).
The I.E.L.A. also coincided with the appropriate development during the early 1940s of contemporary art criticism than went beyond the mere description that characterised the art writing of earlier decades. Stephen Rynne, one of the younger and more progressive critics of the period, who had begun a regular column in the Leader in 1940, praised the present work deeming it to be, 'most skilfully treated...for all its fragility, its almost papery quality...it has peculiar strength deriving from the masterly pre-planning...' (Rynne, quoted ibid., p.122). It is highly significant therefore that the first owner of the present work was Mary Rynne, Stephen's mother, who purchased the picture in 1943 after the first I.E.L.A. She bequeathed the picture to another family when she died in 1961 and this is the first time the picture has ever come onto the market since that first vital I.E.L.A.
The importance of Spanish Shawl, A Study in White is therefore unparalleled both within le Brocquy's oeuvre and in the art historical canon of Irish Art in the 20th Century. In terms of his own personal artistic development, the picture consolidates his early influences and experimentations with colour and with its focus on the elusive model in the centre, it is also prophetic of the subject matter that has pre-occupied him to the present day, that of the isolation of the individual. Within a wider context, the work is a highly important symbol of the pivotal changes in the reception and creation of avant-garde art in Ireland which had such positive ramifications still seen today.