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Major le Brocquy goes under the hammer

The most important work by our greatest living artist to be offered at auction in Ireland in recent years
Whyte's Irish Art Auctioneers and Valuers, Dublin
Important Irish Art, 30 April 2007
Sold € 793,260

Louis le Brocquy HRHA ( b.1916)
A FAMILY, 1951

signed and dated lower left; exhibition label on reverse
oil on canvas board
30 by 40cm., 11.75 by 15.75in.
Christie’s, London, 15 March 1985, lot 93 (illustrated):
Pyms Gallery, London, 1985;
Whence purchased by the present owner
’Celtic Splendour: An Exhibition of Irish Paintings and Drawings 1850-1950’,
Pyms Gallery, London, 24 April - 25 May 1985, catalogue no. 47 (illustrated)
Euro 500,000-700,000 (£340,000-£476,000 approx.)

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This painting, variously titled A Family and their Cat1 and A Family2 (1951), is one of the series by le Brocquy that includes the well-known original version in the National Gallery of Ireland collection, also entitled A Family and painted earlier in the same year. The NGI painting has been the subject of several articles that draw attention to its iconic status in the Irish context, related principally to its challenging subject matter, but also to its contribution to Modernism.3 Carried out in the aftermath of World War II, it was intended to reflect the threatening and unstable environment, indicated in the painting by the austere surroundings, and revealed in the agonised expression of the woman and defeated posture of the man. The artist had this to say about the work:

A Family was conceived in 1950 … in the face of atomic threat, social upheaval and refugees of World War II and its aftermath … Fifty years ago it was painted while contemplating a human condition stripped back to Paleolithic circumstance under the electric light bulbs.4

During the early 1950s when this series was carried out, le Brocquy was living in London, visiting Ireland only periodically. However, the subject of this suite of images has been analysed largely in terms of its significance in the Irish context, tackling a taboo subject in confronting the complexities of family relationships. The Family series was remarkable in its time in various respects. On one hand it dealt with physical intimacy in an era when even the representation of the nude was rare in Irish art. On the other, it suggests marital conflict articulated both through the postures and the space that separate the couple. It been noted that the painting coincided with the proposal to introduce the Mother and Child Service, a scheme designed to provide healthcare to expectant mothers and to young children regardless of income. Proposed by Noel Browne, the Minister for Health of the time, the scheme was opposed both by the Catholic Church and sectors of the medical profession, and the political crisis that ensued ultimately brought down the coalition government. While the artist was living in London at the time, he was aware of the controversy raging at home. As he explains, he had known Browne since his days in Trinity College Dublin as a medical student, and it was an issue that deeply concerned the artist’s mother, Sybil le Brocquy.5

The impact of the aftermath of the War, in particular the atomic threat, was a particular concern of the artist that emerged also in the Travellers series of the late 1940s, and le Brocquy was both vociferous and active in his opposition. The potential to devastate not only humanity, but also even their cultural traces, concerned him deeply, and is reflected in the naked vulnerability of the figures, the bunker-like environment, and the monochromatic tonality.

The NGI painting was one of several shown in an independent exhibition of le Brocquy’s work at the Gimpel Fils Gallery in 1951. The critical response was largely favourable being praised by John Berger and by Eric Newton, and discussed on BBC radio. It was shown later in Victor Waddington’s gallery in Dublin, where opinions were more sharply divided, some critics finding it difficult to come to terms with what was termed ‘distortion’ and overlooking perhaps the appropriate relationship between form and content. In spite of such reservations, Waddington suggested to the Friends of the National Collections in Ireland (FNCI) that they should purchase the painting for the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (now known as the Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane).6 However, the Gallery refused the gift. It was subsequently selected to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 1956 where it was awarded the Premio Aquisitato prize. In 1958, it was selected for the show 50 Ans d’Art Moderne, Brussels, placing it in an international context.

While the NGI painting is the largest and best known of the works in this series, and referred to by the artist as the ‘original’, the related works, including the present smaller version, are significant in developing the theme beyond a single frame. This painting similarly pays homage to the artists and iconic images that hold a special interest for le Brocquy. Stylistically, the work has been most closely related to Picasso, and described as ‘faux-Cubism’. However, the artist also acknowledges the role of Cézanne “the Cimabue of the New Age” and describes his own formal expression as an “absorbed” version.7 The reclining nude in this series refers to Edouard Manet’s iconic Olympia (1863) a work that caused controversy and drew critical comment in its own time. Le Brocquy’s comments on the relationship between Manet’s painting and the NGI painting are relevant to this smaller work:

The elements in its composition correspond in some ways to those of Olympia, if not to Manet’s cool sensuality. The female figure in A Family may be seen to take on a very different significance. The man, replacing Manet’s black servant with bouquet, sits alone. The bouquet is reduced to a mere wisp held by a child. The Olympian black cat in turn becomes white, ominously emerging from the sheets.8

An exhibition of recent work by le Brocquy at the Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, entitled Louis le Brocquy and his Masters: Early Heroes Later Homage, included new explorations of the Olympia image acknowledged in A Family. Like Manet’s prototype, several of the Family paintings include a cat. However, the present work, like Manet’s, displays a feral black cat demonstrating the remnants, or the intrusion, of the wild in the domestic, “rather an ominous and fierce cat – not a particularly tame, family cat.”9

The woman/mother in this painting is markedly different also from the NGI image – her expression is composed, her face surrounded by a cloud of dark hair. She is markedly reminiscent of Goya’s portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate (c.1805), in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, an image that le Brocquy is known to admire, and to have adopted as the basis of certain works, such as the recent Looking at Goya. Doña Antonia Zárate (2005), included in the Homage show.

To the left two childlike figures are a new element, though their expression seems somewhat anxious; they gravitate towards the mother as though for protection and she is evidently a pivotal figure in the scene. To the right, the child with the flowers turns out instead of into the painting. The image clearly relates to the original, in the “persistent interest” to use the artist’s words in the compositional and thematic possibilities of the reclining nude. This work similarly reflects his fascination with this type as he has mentioned:

I have always been fascinated by the horizontal monumentality of traditional Odalisque painting, the reclining woman depicted voluptuously by one Master after another throughout the history of European art – Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Velasquez’ Roqueby Venus turning her back on the Spanish Court, Goya’s Maja clothed and unclothed, Ingres Reclining Odalisque in her seraglio and finally the great Olympia of Edouard Manet celebrating his favourite model, Victorine Meurent.10

Like the NGI original, this smaller painting plays a contributing role in a substantial, even revolutionary, reworking of the theme. This painting demonstrates a degree of independence also, in its evocation of a somewhat more optimistic mood, presenting in this variant work, “a further essay on the matter”.11

Yvonne Scott, Irish Art Research Centre (TRIARC), Trinity College Dublin

1 It was listed under this title in Christie’s sale catalogue, 15 March 1985, lot 93 (illustrated), and subsequently
exhibited under this title in the exhibition Celtic Splendour, Pyms Gallery, 24 April – 25 May 1985, catalogue
no. 47 (illustrated).
2 Pierre le Brocquy has advised Whyte’s that according to Louis le Brocquy the correct title of this work is
A Family, not A Family and their Cat as previously recorded.
3 Medb Ruane, ‘Le Brocquy’s The Family’, Irish Arts Review, Summer 2002, pp. 22-23; Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch
‘Louis le Brocquy’s A Family: ‘An Unwholesome and satanic distortion of natural beauty’’, Recirca.com, September
2002; Róisín Kennedy, ‘Made in England: The Critical Reception of Louis le Brocquy’s A Family’, Third Text, Ireland
Special Issue edited by Lucy Cotter, Volume 19, no. 5, September 2005, pp. 475-486.
4 Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch, op.cit.
5 Louis le Brocquy, in discussion with the author, 27th March 2007.
6 Minutes of Council Meeting, 25 January 1952. FNCI/03/03. Box 16, National Irish Visual Art Library archives.
7 Le Brocquy to the author, op.cit.
8 Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch, op.cit.
9 Le Brocquy to the author, op.cit.
10 Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch, op.cit.
11 Le Brocquy to the author, op.cit.