Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 10, 2010
Tom Dunne and William L. Pressly, eds. James Barry, 1741–1806: History Painter Burlington: Ashgate, 2010. 300 pp.; 11 color ills.; 55 b/w ills. Cloth $114.95 (9780754666349)

The writing of James Barry, 1741–1806: History Painter was occasioned by the bicentennial of Barry’s death, an event commemorated by the exhibition James Barry (1741–1806): ‘The Great Historical Painter’ at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland, in 2005, and followed by a related symposium in February 2006. This book contains fourteen papers given at that conference, presented by a uniformly capable cross-section of scholars ranging from the graduate student to the seasoned authority. The expressed intent of the collection is to help correct the regrettably scant corpus of scholarship devoted to this Irish painter. The topics of the essays are diverse, but the book is cohesive in its enlightening and informative narrative of Barry as, if not the greatest of British eighteenth-century history painters, then as one of its most fascinating and fervent proponents.

As implied by the titles of both book and exhibition, James Barry, 1741–1806: History Painter largely examines the artist specifically in the context of his self-described role as a history painter, a topic discussed at length in essays by Tom Dunne, Martin Monroe, Fionnuala McManamon, Martin Postle, and Asia Haut. As a history painter, Barry favored classical, mythological, Biblical, and historical subject matter. Setting the tone for the book, Dunne opens with a biographical essay that presents the reader with an eighteenth-century society that had largely lost interest in history painting, and it quickly emerges that Barry faced the very realistic possibility of a failed career (1). Much of the book addresses his motives for willfully embracing such formidable professional prospects, and it analyzes the extraordinarily circuitous course of his life which brought him from inglorious expulsion from the Royal Academy to honored burial alongside Joshua Reynolds in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Concerning his motive for favoring history painting, some interesting though divergent reasons emerge throughout the book. David Solkin argues that Barry quite deliberately established himself as an “odd man out,” choosing to be a history painter not merely in spite of but because of the genre’s decline in popularity. Solkin suggests that, as a result of painting lofty yet often incomprehensible, and thus, unpopular subjects, Barry slipped into a “self-serving delusion that had perversely led the artist to assume the public and quite unnecessary role of the martyr-hero” (16). While this may indeed be the case, McManamon places more emphasis on Barry’s philosophy that grand art had the capacity to cultivate virtue in society (55). Barry’s optimistic belief in the utilitarian potential of history painting is also directly addressed at length by Martin Myrone, Postle, and Margaret Lind. Lind even argues that Barry’s voluptuous Venus Rising from the Sea (1772), seemingly a momentary surrender to Rococo sexuality, was actually a challenge for the viewer to embrace ideal love as championed by Homer and Lucretius, and, counter-intuitively, to “disregard the calls of appetite” (68). Whatever his motivations, and indeed Solkin and McManamon’s positions are by no means mutually exclusive, Barry emerges as uncompromisingly steadfast in his artistic intent, never too concerned with reputation or financial gain.

These essays also provide the reader with instructive and interesting insight into the politics, personal life, and personality of this painter. The portrait of Barry that emerges is one of a capable and worthy yet often embarrassingly out-of-date, eccentric, misunderstood, and insufferable artist. Michel Philips, quoting from Barry’s acquaintance William Henry Curran, provides a memorable description of the deplorable condition of Barry’s studio and home: “It appeared to be uninhabited. The glass of the lower windows was broken, the shutters closed, and the door and walls strewed with mud. . . . The area was bestrewn with skeletons of cats and dogs, marrow bones, waste paper, fragments of boys hoops, and other playthings, and with the many kinds of missiles which the pious brats of the neighborhood had hurled against the unhallowed premises” (161–62). Neighbors were even of the belief that the house was inhabited by a wizard, such was the degree of mystery surrounding this famously reclusive Irish immigrant to London (161). While the various contributors to the book refrain from psychological analysis, on occasion Barry’s awareness, and indeed celebration, of his “otherness” lends substantial insight into his work. William Pressley, for example, convincingly demonstrates how Barry, an Irish Catholic working in the midst of English Protestants, surreptitiously embedded a substantial amount of cryptic Papist imagery in his celebrated murals of the Great Room of the Society of Arts (201). Similarly, Haut explains that Barry’s self-described status as an “exile” gave him solidarity with Henri Fuseli and greatly informed his series on Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Barry, like Fuseli, viewed Satan, the archetypal exile, as the most interesting and dimensional character in the work.

Barry was famously expelled (or “exiled,” as he might have said) from the Royal Academy in 1799 for reasons that were never made known, a Kafkaesque affair that has often been attributed principally to his allegedly anti-Monarchist political views. Challenging this standpoint is John Barrell, who revisits Barry’s political stance. Barrell views Barry as politically moderate enough that expulsion from the Academy based solely on politics was rather unlikely. He concludes with the suggestion that Barry’s expulsion likely had more to do with his vocal opposition to Joseph Farrington’s scheme of allotting pensions to academicians based on the quantity of paintings they contributed to the annual exhibition, a system that placed Barry at a disadvantage since history painting was a comparatively time-consuming genre (139–40). He was also upset that the General Assembly had no say regarding the awarding of pensions, which would be granted solely by the Council of the Assembly. Barry believed this could result in intrigue and corruption during elections (140). Though Barrell’s own alternative explanation could certainly be fleshed out more (as it is, it consumes little more than a paragraph), his stance that Barry was no political radical is shared by Dunne, who in the exhibition catalogue James Barry: 1741–1806: ‘The Great Historical Painter’ (Kinsale, Co. Cork: Gandon Editions for the Crawford Art Gallery, 2005) argues that “there is little evidence in Barry’s writings, and even less in his art, to support the still generally accepted view that he was a dangerous radical, of ‘avowed democratical opinions’” (120).

Although he wrote two autobiographical works, the comparative scarcity of research on Barry is the cause of some frustratingly unavoidable problems. Also, it seems that perhaps the unpopularity of the grand manner in Britain may have been somewhat overstated in the book, particularly in light of the ubiquitous presence of Raphael and Michelangelo in so much of the art and literature of the period. For example, Raphael’s Hampton Court cartoons, copies of which hung in the Great Room of the Royal Academy, were extraordinarily popular as evidenced by their frequent duplication in the form of eighteenth-century copies, etchings, and even Bible illustrations. In literature, both artists also enjoyed a virtual apotheosis via the acclamatory praise offered by artists, connoisseurs, writers, and travelers on the Grand Tour. Though popular taste for the grand manner was admittedly not as great as Barry would have wished, it was not absent altogether.

James Barry, 1741–1806: History Painter is an excellent complement to the previously mentioned exhibition catalogue that accompanied the bicentennial at the Crawford Art Gallery. Bits are admittedly redundant: in both books Pressley contributes an analysis of the murals at the Royal Society, for example. But while the much more lavishly illustrated catalogue focuses primarily on contextualizing the works exhibited, James Barry, 1741–1806: History Painter offers more research across a broader spectrum.

While the fourteen essays are replete with humorous anecdotes of the famously eccentric artist, the volume never resorts to caricature. The reader is presented with an artist admirably ready to forgo immediate fame if instead he could use his art as the antidote for what he believed was an art market saturated by the trivial. It is this quality, rare in our own society full of Andy Warhols and Lady Gagas reaping their fifteen minutes of fame, that makes another book about Barry relevant now more than ever. As such, James Barry, 1741–1806: History Painter does a bit more than simply fill a void in academic scholarship. This reviewer hopes, along with the book’s editors, that this indispensible book helps inspire continued research about this fascinating artist.

Jonathan Rinck
Affiliate Instructor, Department of Art, Spring Arbor University