Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1951 – A Family, by Louis le Brocquy

The painting, influenced by ‘Guernica’, secured his place in international modernism

When Louis le Brocquy's painting Travelling Woman with Newspaper, from 1948, was auctioned for almost £1.2 million, in 2000, even Irish people who despise sale prices as indicators of aesthetic value were pleased to see a living Irish artist break through the million-pound barrier on the international market.

It was not always so. In 1952 a more famous painting by le Brocquy, A Family, was offered as a gift to the penniless Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, only to be rejected. Two years after the 2000 auction the businessman Lochlann Quinn and his wife, Brenda, bought A Family privately for €2.7 million and gave it to the National Gallery of Ireland under the State's heritage donation scheme. How those private patrons, refused 50 years earlier, must have smiled.

Official rejections of le Brocquy's work were significant triggers in Irish art history – and pushed the painter into the limelight, paradoxically to the benefit of his career. The Royal Hibernian Academy's refusal to accept two of his paintings in 1942 resulted in the foundation of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. The rejection of A Family caused outrage among the same people who had founded that exhibition.

Their outrage ensured that the newly formed Arts Council and the cultural relations committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs endorsed le Brocquy’s selection, with the sculptor Hilary Heron, to represent Ireland at the 1956 Venice Biennale, where he showed a number of paintings on the theme of the family.


An instant success there, A Family secured for the artist and for Ireland the Premio Acquisto Internationale award. Two years later the painting was again highlighted, when it was included in the exhibition 50 Ans d'Art Moderne at the World Fair in Brussels, placing le Brocquy firmly in the narrative of international modernism.

Nothing succeeds in the visual arts in Ireland like external validation. A year after the death of Jack B Yeats le Brocquy was seen as the pre-eminent artist on this island. This prompted Tony O’Malley to remark of 1960s Ireland that to call yourself an artist was to expose yourself to ridicule unless you had a foreign-sounding name.

A Family evokes an era of austerity unlike anything we know now. Le Brocquy mentioned postwar social upheaval and the new threat of atomic catastrophe as sources for the nightmarish angst it represents. Speaking about A Family 50 years later, he was happy to link it to the great European tradition of the reclining nude, especially to Manet's Olympia, from 1863. The compositional links are clear, but the sensuality of the earlier painting has been driven out by overarching and pervasive anxiety and by the artist's espousal of washed-out grey and white, instead of his own earlier dalliance with colour.

But le Brocquy does not mention the obvious, and more political, influence of Picasso's Guernica, from 1937, the possible source of his reduced palette but definitely of his cubist fracturing of form and of the stark light bulb that projects an unsympathetic glare on this pitiful bedroom scene.

Before it was rejected by the Hugh Lane on the grounds of incompetence, the critic John Berger declared that the right-hand half of the painting “is, by itself, the finest bit of contemporary painting I have seen for a long time”.

The series of paintings of the family marked a transition in le Brocquy’s work, away from colour towards a concentration on an ever-more abstracted focus on the single figure. It was also a move away from the prominent social commitment to Travellers, prisoners and the poor of his earlier work, towards his studies of celebrity figures such as Joyce, Yeats and Beckett.

You can read more about this week's artwork in the Royal Irish Academy's Art and Architecture of Ireland;