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William John Hennessy 1839 - 1917

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, William John Hennessy

Gathering Apples, Normandy
Oil on canvas, 71 x 40 inches. Signed by the artist and dated 1884
Exhibited: Autumn Exhibition, Manchester, 1884, number 361;
Milmo-Penny Fine Art, December 2006

Hennessy spent the summer months in Normandy where he had a residence close to the port of Honfleur. A school of painting, based in Saint Siméon’s Inn, was already well established there. Corot, Isabey and Huet were amongst the first painters of the group. Boudin, who was born there, invited Courbet, Jongkind and Monet to join them. It was at this time that Boudin encouraged Monet to paint in the open air and it was this activity that led to the advent of Impressionism. Hennessy might have had this in mind when he painted An Impressionist at Work; Scene in a Normandy Cider Orchard, which he sent to the Royal Academy in 1881. Other Calvados works include Normandy Pippin, 1879; In a Normandy Cider Orchard, 1880 and En Fête – Calvados, 1882.

Scenes set in cider orchards recur many times in Hennessy’s work. Perhaps the best known version is Fête Day in a Cider Orchard, Normandy, painted in 1878 and now in the Ulster Museum. Another related painting has just come to light. Painted in 1877, A Couple Seated Before an Inn shows a young man and woman seated at a bench with a pitcher of cider. A girl sits in the doorway wearing the traditional costume similar to that worn by the woman who bends down to gather apples in the present painting. Hennessy must have been conscious of Millet’s work, when he drew this figure in her back-breaking pose.

The apples are shaken from the tree by a man with a long pole. His pose and that of the stooping woman are reminiscent of Osborne’s famous orchard scene painted in Quimperlé in the previous year (National Gallery of Ireland). It may be that Hennessy was familiar with Osborne’s painting or that they both borrowed from the same motifs. The scene portrays an idyllic lifestyle. The orchard is set behind a traditional thatched Norman farmhouse from which an old woman approaches with an empty basket. A dappled light falls on the rich and fertile grasses that grow amongst the trees. A young woman in more modern dress has filled her basket. She leans to one side against its weight as she carries it off to the cider press.

 Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, William John Hennessy

Figures on a Path, Normandy
Oil on canvas, 13 x 20 inches. Signed by the artist and dated 187-
Inscribed verso The . . . . . Normandy; W.J. Hennessy
Provenance: Peter Nahum, London;
Private collection, Bury, Lancashire
Exhibited: Milmo-Penny Fine Art, December 2001

Much of his work depicts local people engaged in everyday activity. Here, a mother and her young child pause by a tranquil waterway, perhaps on their way to market or to collect wild herbs or mushrooms from the fields. Although the date on this canvas is indistinct, it was probably executed between 1875 and 1879.Drawings dated to this year portray peasant women gathering firewood and picking fruit. The painting is well composed and finely balanced. The ancient ivy-clad building forms a strong centrepiece against which the perspective is scaled. It lends distance to the spire, which is probably the Calvaire, set on high ground above the harbour of Honfleur. Through the trees and soaring foreground poplars, the artist shows a glimpse of the Seine as it flows through the estuary to the sea. The distant landfall runs from the Pont de Tancarville, in a westerly direction towards Le Havre. The location is probably close to the manor house, leased by Hennessy from 1875.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, William John Hennessy

Old Farm Yard, Mareil, Marly
Oil on canvas 28 x 20 inches. Signed by the artist and dated 1901
Exhibited: Royal Hibernian Academy, 1902, number 55;
Society of Oil Painters, London, 1903, as Feeding Pigeons – Mareil, Marly;
Milmo-Penny Fine Art, December 2001

In 1886 Hennessy moved from Honfleur to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. From here, it was a short journey to the location of this farmyard at Mareil, Marly-les-Rois, where Sisley had lived and painted ten years earlier. He remained here until his move to Sussex in 1893, having toured Italy in the meantime. The current painting, dated 1901, indicates that he returned to his familiar painting grounds in France, probably on a regular basis during summertime. This is not surprising, as he had spent most summers there after his return from America in 1870.

The theme of this painting is reminiscent of much of the work of Irish artists in France in the preceding decades. It is extremely close to Osborne and Kavanagh when compared to their treatment of enclosed courtyards in Antwerp in 1882 and Nathaniel Hill’s farmyard scenes painted in Brittany in the following years. He follows Osborne in his concentration on the figure and narrative rather than textural detail. The girl has entered the yard to feed the fowl. However, she is portrayed feeding the opportunistic pigeons. Familiar with her daily routine, two of the pigeons roost on the edge of the water barrel, confidently preening their feathers. One goose flaps its wings as another squawks in protest. The hens, busily feeding, ignore all the fuss. It is interesting to compare the girl’s costume to other works shown here. Although not as fine, her skirt and apron are almost identical to those worn by Eugene Labitte’s Goose Girl . They both wear clogs, as does the mother and child in Hennessy’s earlier painting. Her bonnet appears to be a slightly dishevelled version of those worn in Harry Scully’s interiors.

William John Hennessy was born at Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny on the 11th July 1839. His father, John Hennessy, was forced to flee his homeland following his involvement with the Young Ireland movement of 1848. He landed in Canada but moved to New York soon afterwards where his wife Catherine and their two sons joined him in 1849. Private tutors provided most of William’s education. While still in his early teens he made his first drawings from life. In 1854 he gained entry to the National Academy of Design. His first exhibit was shown at the Academy three years later from an address at 87 Franklin Street. From 1860 onwards, his exhibition address was given as New York University. He was elected an associate of the Academy in 1861 and an academician in 1863. He presented The Wood Gleaner , an oil sketch on paper, as the representative example of his work, which he was obliged to present on election. The paintings and illustrations, which he produced from his New York studio during these years, won him considerable acclaim. His landscapes were particularly praised, as was his ability to paint a good sky.

He soon developed a specialty in wood engraving and received commissions to illustrate the works of such great poets as Tennyson, Longfellow and Whittier, amongst others,. In 1870 he worked on a series of drawings for Edwin Booth in Dramatic Characters, published in Boston in 1872. Co-founder of the Artists’ Fund Society, he became an honorary member of the American Society of Painters in Watercolours. In 1870, shortly after his second marriage, he moved to London. He became a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1902. He exhibited his work at the Grosvenor Gallery, New Gallery and the Royal Academy between 1871 and 1882. During this time, he exhibited his work at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, Manchester City Art Gallery and the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts. Between 1879 and 1907 he showed eight paintings at the Royal Hibernian Academy.

Although Irish art of the late 19th century has its roots in the local art schools, the development of such a strong tradition owes more to the academies and studios of Britain, France, Belgium and Italy. It was not that standards were so much better in these institutions, but that there was the opportunity to exchange ideas with the most important emerging artists of the day. Additionally, further influences were absorbed when artists from every corner of the world gathered in the art colonies that had become well established by this time. Without the experience gained there, Irish art would be much poorer in depth and quality.

It is from these associations that we have developed a strong interest in those painters from around the world who worked side by side with Irish artists in the small villages of France and England. One of the most famous of these locations is Pont-Aven in Brittany. Indeed, an exhibition of Irish artists working in Brittany was held in the Musée de Pont-Aven in 1999. Another popular destination for Irish artists was the historic port of Concarneau. Many of the smaller villages such as Le Pouldu also attracted a number of Irish artists. They were also found painting in some of the Breton towns such as Quimperlé and ports such as Cancale and Honfleur, where Hennessy painted Figures on a Path.

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