Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1920 – The Lobster Fisherman at Dusk, by Paul Henry

Paul Henry’s calm portrait captures the challenge Irish artists faced in combining modernism and nationalism

The idea that the real Ireland was to be found among the small farmers and fisherfolk of the western seaboard was deeply embedded in nationalist culture. Challenges to the ideal of rugged western heroism, such as John Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, were deeply resented. The paintings of Paul Henry provided a much more soothing image. Though himself the Belfast-born son of a Baptist preacher, Henry gradually became the primary creator of a visual representation of the west that could be projected internationally as the essential and authentic Ireland. Henry sought a sense of the timeless in which contemporary political violence or the marks of the Great Famine left few discernible traces.

In 1920, when Ireland was racked by conflict, Henry began The Lobster Fisher at Dusk, one of the last of his paintings to centre on a human figure. It was the culmination of a decade during which he explored the relationship of poor westerners with their often hostile environment. He had settled on Achill following a visit in 1910, partly inspired by the plays of Synge, whom Henry had met in Paris, where he studied painting with James McNeill Whistler in the 1890s. An earlier painting, The Watcher (1911), has been associated with Synge's Riders to the Sea, the single red-skirted woman identified with the character, Maurya, waiting in vain on a windswept rock for the return of her son. But the sense of the harsh and tragic sides of western life that Henry got from Synge gradually became a more muted presence in his paintings.

In The Lobster Fisher, the heaving sea of The Watcher, the stoical woman and the absent craft are replaced by a calm ocean and the practiced competence of the fisherman profiled with his currach and creels against the still horizon. The image might be centuries old.

The huge sky that dominates the painting does suggest some degree of tension. Billowing cumulus and horizontal bands of stratus cloud signify calm, but with the burgeoning threat of wilder weather to come. The clear forms and monochromatic harmonies show Whistler’s influence, capturing the challenge facing Irish artists at the time of combining the often conflicting demands of modernism and nationalism.

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Henry claimed to be apolitical – somewhat disingenuously, given the way his imagery visualised a politically charged ideal of Irish national identity – and his paintings seem to deny history. It is easy to forget that at one time, excited by exposure to modernist ideas in Paris, he observed how "the revolutionary in [him] had developed". It can equally be overlooked that The Lobster Fisher emerged in the year that Henry established, along with challenging artists such as Mainie Jellett, Jack Yeats and Harry Clarke, the Dublin Society of Painters, which aimed to support those disillusioned with the conservatism of the academic establishment and interested in a more modernist aesthetic.

Henry himself can be regarded as Ireland’s first important postimpressionist painter. Yet the images he went on to create were easily assimilated to advertising campaigns to lure British tourists to the west of Ireland. They also lured many Irish people towards a consoling view of a country strangely unaffected by revolutionary upheaval.

For further information see the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland, at ria.ie