Landscape and the natural world

Landscape is arguably the single most important theme to have been addressed by Irish painters in terms of quantity and range. Always popular, particularly in the wake of Edmund Burke’s aesthetic treatise on the beautiful and sublime in nature, in the early twentieth century its significance gained momentum as it was used to convey a sense of Irish identity. Its importance continues in the light of contemporary concerns regarding such issues as ecology, migration, and to factors related to globalisation.

The nature poetry of the early medieval period in Ireland is among the most celebrated internationally demonstrating keen observation and love of the natural world. Interestingly, the depiction of nature in words is not mirrored in the visual arts, and where the natural world is depicted, it is generally shown in abstracted or symbolic form. Plants and animals included in the decoration of artworks such as the Book of Kells or high crosses often have symbolic connotations, for example the popularity of grape vines relates to the symbolism of the Eucharist.




Art depicting animals reflects the influence of books such as bestiaries (encyclopaedias of animals, both real and mythological, which gave them moral characteristics), rather than the Irish natural world. Thus mermaids were used as a symbol of vanity, while pelicans were understood to symbolise piety.



At Corcomroe abbey (Co. Clare), there is a rare example of the depiction of the natural world in Irish medieval art. Here early thirteenth-century carvings in the hard Burren limestone depict opium poppies, lily-of-the valley and foxgloves, plants that were probably cultivated in the monastic garden.

View of Powerscourt Waterfall (c. 1760) by George Barret (1728/32-84)

View of Powerscourt Waterfall (c. 1760) by George Barret (1728/32-84). Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

View of Powerscourt Waterfall (c. 1760) by George Barret (1728/32-84) - Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

The Opening of the Sixth Seal (1828) by Francis Danby (1793-1861)

The Opening of the Sixth Seal (1828) by Francis Danby (1793-1861) demonstrates the human drama of Romantic painting, which here contains elements of the sublime. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

The Opening of the Sixth Seal (1828) by Francis Danby (1793-1861) - Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

The Thunderstorm/ The Frightened Wagoner (1832) by James Arthur O’Connor (1792-1841)

The Thunderstorm/ The Frightened Wagoner (1832) by James Arthur O’Connor (1792-1841) is a scene of human dilemma and the power of nature. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

The Thunderstorm/ The Frightened Wagoner (1832) by James Arthur O’Connor (1792-1841) - Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

Lucan House and Demesne, County Dublin (c.1773-75) by Thomas Roberts (1748-78)

Thomas Roberts (1748-78), Lucan House and Demesne, County Dublin (c.1773-75). This painting places the big house at the centre of a benign, well-ordered and productive landscape, suggesting that the social order was a mirror of the natural order. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

Lucan House and Demesne, County Dublin (c.1773-75) by Thomas Roberts (1748-78) - Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

The depiction of landscape first became significant in the context of cartography, when maps incorporated elements of the landscape in a semi naturalistic way. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it became increasingly popular among the aristocracy who commissioned ‘portraits’ of their houses and estates, generally shown as well-ordered and prosperous. At the end of the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke’s celebrated treatise (1757) on the beautiful and the sublime in nature influenced the move towards more dramatic landscapes, incorporating spectacular natural features, like high mountains, panoramic views, or steep waterfalls, sometimes demonstrating the relative inferiority of man against such natural or celestial power. It influenced Romantic painting which often showed humanity in a battle for survival.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the decline of the aristocracy and rise of the middle classes was reflected in changing tastes in landscape imagery. As Irish artists increasingly travelled to Europe, particularly France, they were drawn to new ideas regarding naturalism and realism as explored, for example, at artists’ colonies in various rural locations, like the Forest of Fontainebleau.


Later, aspects of the various new methods of Impressionism and post-Impressionism were taken up by Irish artists. Scenes of everyday life, and experiments with brushwork and colour were explored. However, the interest in city life that featured prominently in the work of British, French and other Continental painters was of more limited interest to Irish artists.

Nationalistic interests, fuelled by literature, particularly the work of W.B. Yeats and of J.M. Synge, focused the attention of artists towards the West of Ireland, particularly its association with authentic Irishness. This region was seen on the one hand, as the least affected by external influences, and on the other as demonstrating Irish culture as the direct opposite of Britain’s supposedly urban and sophisticated character.


Paul Henry’s images of rolling boglands, or of cottages nestling at the base of a mountain, presented a simple, unifying and comforting image of Ireland at a time of economic and political upheaval.

Jack B. Yeats was one of the few artists to address the city in the early twentieth century. He was less interested in a naturalistic representation than capturing the mood of bustle, and of human interaction or isolation.

Later in the century, artists like Tony O’Malley, Patrick Collins and others explored ideas of place, heritage and nature, in an increasingly abstracted style that drew on memory and imagination rather than literal description. From the 1970s, the preoccupation with the rural and romanticised was challenged by those who recognised an increasingly urban society. The city has been expressed in various ways including as a severe and alienating, or as a dynamic place of opportunity and culture.

Contemporary representations of the landscape are mainly concerned with social and political issues, such as the divisions in Northern Ireland , social deprivation and isolation generally, and issues relating to ecology, migration and globalisation. Even romanticised subjects tend to reflect an underlying comment on the challenges facing contemporary society.


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