Art in Focus: The Village Funeral by Daniel MacDonald

A short-lived 19th-century Cork artist shines a light on the reality of the Famine

The Village Funeral: An Irish Family by a Graveside during the Great Famine by Daniel MacDonald

The Village Funeral: An Irish Family by a Graveside during the Great Famine by Daniel MacDonald

 

What is it?

The Village Funeral – An Irish Family by a Graveside During the Great Famine is a painting by Cork artist Daniel MacDonald. Its precise date is unclear, but it probably dates from around 1850, give or take a year or two either way. MacDonald was exceptional in the way he consistently addressed the realities of Irish rural life of his time, including contentious subjects.

How was it done?

The Village Funeral could almost be a conventional genre scene, but its straightforward naturalism, conveying a real sense of loss and sadness, together with a certain classical quality, lifts it out of generic convention. Not to mention that the famine looms in the background. MacDonald’s specific achievement lies in taking the pictorial conventions of the day, as defined and approved by the dominant political and cultural power – artists had to make a living – and moving beyond them to address subjects not officially sanctioned. A prominent example is his 1847 painting

An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store. It is, amazingly, the only known artistic depiction of the Great Famine, because the subject was tacitly judged unacceptable. That MacDonald exhibited it in London in 1847 is remarkable, that it was ignored is hardly surprising. The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, who published The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 in 1962, left that painting to UCD.  

Where can I see it?

The Village Funeral was purchased at auction by the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, with the assistance of funding from the Department of the Arts. It was recognised as an important work, historically, and of particular relevance to Cork. The Crawford collection already included several paintings by MacDonald (including Eviction Scene, dated 1850, and A Country Dance, dated 1848), as well as a number of drawings. After the appropriate checks and assessment of its condition, this new addition will be placed on public view in the gallery.

Is it a typical work by the artist?

It is typical, although it’s worth mentioning that MacDonald was also highly regarded as a portrait painter. He was born in Cork in 1821, the son of a Co Cork woman, Catherine McCarthy, and a Scot, James MacDonald, associated with lands on the isle of Skye. James was a caricaturist, painter, writer and musician, and energetically involved in Cork’s vibrant cultural life. Daniel was recognised as being precociously gifted and began to exhibit work in his teens. By the age of 20 he was an established artistic presence.

In the mid-1840s James moved his family to London, where Daniel was soon in demand as a portrait painter, while continuing to paint subject pictures. Tragically, he became ill in 1853 and died. The cause of death was recorded as a fever.

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