Paul Henry


Artist Biography:

Born in Belfast in 1876, Paul Henry was one of the finest painters in Irish history, and one whose work played an important role as the newly independent Republic of Ireland strove to assert its cultural identity. Henry was one of four sons born to the Baptist minister Robert Mitchell Henry; while he flirted briefly with nationalism in his youth, he chose not to involve himself in the sensitive politics of the time, and left for Paris in 1898. He had chosen to visit that city at a most opportune time: the centre of the artistic avant-garde around the turn of the century, Paris was home to artists such as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, while Henry was joined by such notable compatriots as W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce. While in Paris, Henry enrolled in a studio run by James McNeill Whistler, and he made great strides in developing his spare, post-impressionist style. It was there, also, that he met his first wife, Grace, a painter with similar artistic principles to Henry, and supposedly a relation of Lord Byron. The two were married in 1903 in London, where they were to live for several years. Henry enjoyed some success as an illustrator while living in London; but this relatively pedestrian lifestyle was to be ended in 1910 when his good friend Robert Lynd recommended he visit the island of Achill, off the west coast of Ireland. Having planned initially to spend just two weeks on Achill, Henry fell in love with the island at first sight, reportedly tearing up his return rail ticket and scattering the fragments into the sea. The planned two weeks extended to nine years. Henry was in his element amid the barren landscapes of Achill, the striking nature of the light in that area, and its inhabitants, who still pursued their traditional way of life despite the numerous hardships that went with it. He found the island a constant source of inspiration, producing a great number of superb paintings; and it was great reluctance that he left, at the behest of his wife, in 1919. Ireland was in turmoil at this time: the struggle for an autonomous nation state was nearing its climax, and patriotic sentiments came to the fore. The political campaign for a separate Irish identity was well underway, and it was accompanied by a drive to establish a truly distinct cultural identity for the new nation. Paul Henry’s association with the west of Ireland placed him at the forefront of this movement: the western part of the country had come to be seen as the “uncorrupted heart” of Ireland, and Henry’s stirring depictions of this beautiful region were in keeping with the patriotic optimism of the time. Soon after arriving in Dublin, Henry founded the Society of Dublin Painters, finding the existing artistic societies in the city too conservative for his taste. He continued to produce fine work, enjoying great acclaim throughout his career and, indeed, well after its end: the National Gallery of Ireland held a major exhibition of his work in 2004. Paul Henry died on 24 August 1958.

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