Seán Keating biography casts new light on artist's work

DR Éimear O’Connor has made a remarkable contribution to Irish art history. She has curated two major exhibitions of the work of 20th century artist, Seán Keating, and has written several books on him, of which the most recent is Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation.

Seán Keating biography casts new light on artist's work

Sponsored by the ESB and published by the Irish Academic Press, it is an impressive volume that assesses the artist’s life and work in terms of his well-known paintings and hundreds of works of art, including drawings and sketches, that have remained in private collections for decades.

Keating has not lapsed into obscurity in the years since his death in 1977, but his artistic reputation rests mainly on paintings of War of Independence flying columns, traditional life on the Aran Islands, and the building of the Shannon hydroelectric scheme.

Although these three strands are important, O’Connor has brought to light many other works of art, including murals, stained-glass panels, posters and drawings, which have long been overlooked or forgotten. O’Connor has re-appraised paintings that had been partly understood, and, perhaps most importantly, she has provided an insight into the artist’s relationships with the art world and with those around him.

Born in Limerick in 1889, Keating liked to claim he had grown up in poverty, but the family home, No. 5, Newenham Street, was on a fine, large Georgian terrace, and while money was not abundant, there was enough to employ a maid, the house was full of books, and the children received private piano lessons.

Keating went to St Munchin’s, a respected school, where he received a good education, in spite of not being academically inclined.

Keating’s rise to fame began when his talents were recognised by the successful portrait painter, William Orpen, whose influence won the young artist a scholarship to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, forerunner of today’s National College of Art. Under Orpen’s influence and tutelage, Keating flourished, producing mainly portraits and allegorical paintings. Because of the difficulty of making a living as an artist in Ireland, he was to remain a teacher at the Metropolitan School for most of his life.

A complex artist, Keating was simultaneously anti-establishment and yet close to senior politicians, such as Sean Moylan, who had been a member of the IRA flying column depicted in Men of the South, and who was later minister for education. In a time when the Catholic Church held sway, Keating remained resolutely leftwing and socialist. Employed as a tutor at the Metropolitan School, he irritated the headmaster, George Atkinson, so much that it was only through Keating’s political connections that he kept his job.

Keating painted what he saw and said what he thought. He followed the realist tenet that art could not be separated from life, and portrayed the great events of his time.

He recorded the different stages of the building of the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme, because he realised that this massive engineering project would bring prosperity to an impoverished West of Ireland.

While Keating’s oil paintings of the scheme, including large allegorical works, such as Night’s Candles are Burned Out, are powerful, realist canvases, his watercolours and sketches reveal a delicacy and aesthetic quality similar to that of John Singer Sargent.

Keating occasionally veered towards caricature, but, by and large, was successful in telling the story of Ireland’s social and political history through the faces and attitudes of the people he saw on building sites, streets and country roads.

Keating’s style of dress eschewed the bow tie then popular in ateliers and drawing rooms, and he preferred the homespun clothes of the Aran Islanders. He was shrewd and politically astute; useful skills in an art world dominated by a degree of social snobbery.

While his fulminations against progressive art movements meant that he became increasingly identified as a dyed-in-the-wool academic artist, his views, although strongly-held, did not prevent him getting on well with people he admired, such as Mainie Jellett, the leading promoter of abstract painting in Ireland.

In the 1960s, with Ireland experiencing economic and industrial growth, modernist office buildings appeared in cities, while ranch-style houses dotted the Irish rural landscape. Keating’s paintings began to be regarded as old-fashioned and he fell out of favour with a young and relatively affluent audience. Keating did himself no favours by continuing to produce, into his 70s, images of Aran islanders and currachs. There was still a demand, albeit a dwindling one, for his views of traditional life in the West of Ireland.

One of the reasons for Keating’s fall from popularity in the 1970s and 80s is almost accidentally revealed in O’Connor’s book. The assessment of an artist’s career, the placing of them within the historical context of their own lifetime, largely depends upon work being available to public collections. As they become familiar, these works form part of a collective visual memory.

Keating’s Men of the West, in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin is such a painting, as is his Men of the South, in the Crawford Gallery in Cork.

However, despite Keating’s importance in 20th century Irish art, so many of his works are in private collections that the range and quality of his output has not been appreciated.

That is, until now, with O’Connor’s detailed research, and her discovery of long-forgotten works making possible a reassessment of one of Ireland’s greatest painters.

Lively and well-written, O’Connor’s text carries the reader along at a brisk pace. She also stresses Keating’s generosity of spirit and mischievous sense of humour, qualities much appreciated by those who knew him.

O’Connor’s sensitivity to her subject makes Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation one of the most outstanding books on Irish art to have been published in recent years.

* Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation’ (Irish Academic Press)

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