An ex­cep­tional paint­ing by short-lived 19th-cen­tury artist Daniel Mac­Don­ald that shines a light on the re­al­ity of the Famine

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THETAKE CRITICS’ CHOICE - AIDANDUNNE


The Vil­lage Funeral – An Ir­ish Fam­ily by a Grave­side Dur­ing the Great Famine is a paint­ing by Cork artist Daniel Mac­Don­ald. Its pre­cise date is un­clear, but it prob­a­bly dates from around 1850, give or take a year or two ei­ther way. Mac­Don­ald was ex­cep­tional in the way he con­sis­tently ad­dressed the re­al­i­ties of Ir­ish ru­ral life of his time, in­clud­ing con­tentious sub­jects.


The Vil­lage Funeral could al­most be a con­ven­tional genre scene, but its straight­for­ward nat­u­ral­ism, con­vey­ing a real sense of loss and sad­ness, to­gether with a cer­tain clas­si­cal qual­ity, lifts it out of generic con­ven­tion. Not to men­tion that the famine looms in the back­ground. Mac­Don­ald’s spe­cific achieve­ment lies in tak­ing the pic­to­rial con­ven­tions of the day, as de­fined and ap­proved by the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural power – artists had to make a liv­ing – and mov­ing beyond them to ad­dress sub­jects not of­fi­cially sanc­tioned. A prom­i­nent ex­am­ple is his 1847 paint­ing An Ir­ish Peas­ant Fam­ily Dis­cov­er­ing the Blight of their Store. It is, amaz­ingly, the only known artis­tic de­pic­tion of the Great Famine, be­cause the sub­ject was tac­itly judged un­ac­cept­able. That Mac­Don­ald ex­hib­ited it in Lon­don in 1847 is re­mark­able, that it was ig­nored is hardly sur­pris­ing. The his­to­rian Ce­cil Wood­ham-Smith, who pub­lished The Great Hunger: Ire­land 1845-1849 in 1962, left that paint­ing to UCD.

Where can I see it?

The Vil­lage Funeral was pur­chased at auc­tion by the Craw­ford Art Gallery, Cork, with the as­sis­tance of fund­ing from the De­part­ment of the Arts. It was recog­nised as an im­por­tant work, his­tor­i­cally, and of par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance to Cork. The Craw­ford col­lec­tion al­ready in­cluded sev­eral paint­ings by Mac­Don­ald (in­clud­ing Evic­tion Scene, dated 1850, and A Coun­try Dance, dated 1848), as well as a num­ber of draw­ings. Af­ter the ap­pro­pri­ate checks and as­sess­ment of its con­di­tion, this new ad­di­tion will be placed on pub­lic view in the gallery.


It is typ­i­cal, although it’s worth men­tion­ing that Mac­Don­ald was also highly re­garded as a por­trait painter. He was born in Cork in 1821, the son of a Co Cork woman, Cather­ine McCarthy, and a Scot, James Mac­Don­ald, as­so­ci­ated with lands on the isle of Skye. James was a car­i­ca­tur­ist, painter, writer and mu­si­cian, and en­er­get­i­cally in­volved in Cork’s vi­brant cul­tural life. Daniel was recog­nised as be­ing pre­co­ciously gifted and be­gan to ex­hibit work in his teens. By the age of 20 he was an es­tab­lished artis­tic pres­ence.

In the mid-1840s James moved his fam­ily to Lon­don, where Daniel was soon in de­mand as a por­trait painter, while con­tin­u­ing to paint sub­ject pic­tures. He be­came ill in 1853 and died. The cause of death was recorded as a fever.

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