THE TRIP OF THE ‘IRISH GIRL’ from Achill Island to the Boston MFA

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The girl’s auburn hair, rosy complexion and surprisingly blue eyes remain frozen in time. Since the moment, more than a century ago, when the famous American artist Robert Henri (1865-1929) immortalized her on canvas on Achill Island, the pretty and innocent face of Mary O’Donnel testifies of a remote Irish landscape which, according to art historian Margaret Stenz, the painter “was a scene from [J.M. Synge’s] “The Playboy of the Western World. This haunting image of a vanished Ireland now resides not in a museum in Dublin, but in a former Boston stronghold, the Museum of Fine Arts.

Robert Henry Cozad was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1865 to his father, John Jackson Cozad, a suave traveling professional gamer with a sizable ego and a knack for making enemies. The father shot and killed a man during a financial dispute in the town of Cozad, Nebraska, which he had founded and named for himself. Although he was on trial for acting in self-defense, the prospect of the deceased’s family chasing Cozad caused him, his wife and children to flee the area and head east. Later, Robert Cozad and several of his siblings adopted new surnames in hopes of distancing themselves from their father’s checkered reputation. Robert Henry Cozad changed his name to Robert Henri (pronounced Hen-rye).

A gifted artist from an early age, Henri perfected his nascent talent first at the Academy of Fine Arts in Pennsylvania then at the prestigious Julien Academy in Paris. In 1891 he was admitted to the much-vaunted École des Beaux-Arts, and he divided his time between the schools he directed in Paris and Philadelphia, where he married Linda Craige, one of his students.

Henri had a year of escape to Paris in 1899, when five of his paintings were awarded on the walls of two of the city’s largest galleries. He returns to the United States with his reputation as a rising star of the art world taking shape. In 1905, however, the death of his wife after a series of illnesses and a miscarriage devastated the painter.

Three years later, two profound events, one personal, the other professional, upset the course of Henri’s life. The 42-year-old artist fell in love and married 22-year-old Irish-born Marjorie Organ, a student at her school in New York City. That same year, 1908, he and seven other painters dubbed “The Eight” rocked the art world with grainy works capturing images of America’s poor. This effort was in keeping with his portraits of rural peasants and impoverished city dwellers in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Ireland during summer stays in Europe.

In the summer of 1913, the couple traveled to Ireland and made a detour to Achill Island. There they befriended Pat Sheridan, a renowned seascape painter and owner of the Hotel Slievemore, in Dugort. Sheridan and the rugged beauty of the island persuaded the Henri to stay for the summer. The artist, captivated by the faces of the island, begins a love story with Achill that will last for years. His enthusiasm was fueled in large part by a friendship with old islander Brian O’Malley, a man who knew every inch of the island.

Most summers they rented Corrymore House, a sprawling, sprawling residence near Dooagh and Keel that once belonged to the infamous Captain Charles Boycott, an English land agent who was ostracized by the natives of the island for his work on behalf of Britain. His legacy is the name given to the practice of withholding the purchase of certain goods for one cause or another. Henri and his wife bought the mansion in 1924 and returned there for four consecutive years.

He painted portraits of dozens of islanders and was especially determined to paint the faces of Achill’s children with brush oil. In his book “The Art Spirit” he said: “If you paint children, you must not have any condescending attitude towards them. Anyone who approaches a child without humility, without wonder, fails in his judgment of what is in front of him… .Paint with respect for [the child]….[The child] is the great possibility, the independent individual.

In the summer of 1913, Henry brought all aspects of this approach into his portrayal of a young girl named Mary O’Donnel, the daughter of the Corrymore Guardians. He paid her the current half-krone “model salary”, a welcome allowance amid the difficult lives of most Achill families.

In a letter to John T. Spaulding, a famous Boston art collector who lived in a presbytery on Beacon Street, Henry wrote that Mary was “shy and speechless in the presence of strangers,” but that it was possible to see her run around the island on horseback. and picking sea herbs. Enthusiastic, Spaulding purchased the painting in 1921 and ultimately donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts. The canvas is the only one of Henri’s works purchased by Spaulding.

While many of Boston’s old guard families were barely as enamored with “The Irish Girl” as Spaulding, Mary O’Donnel, despite her shyness, still draws attention as the face of a bygone era in the world. rural Achill Island. It deserves its place among the treasures of the Museum of Fine Arts.

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