I fell in love with Mainie Jellett and her work when I was given an assignment in college as part of a Modernism module. The brief was to give a ten minute presentation on an Irish modern artist and tie in what makes them a modern artist. I can’t remember exactly how I came across Jellett but when I saw her work it was obviously modern. What drew me to her was her use of colours and her dedication to promoting modern art in Ireland. I was lucky enough to see some of her work on display during a recent trip to The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.
Mary Harriet Jellett or Mainie as she was fondly known as lived between 1897 and 1944. She came from a prestigious Protestant family in Dublin where the arts were valued and practiced. Jellett became involved in art at a young age. Her first original works of art date from 1909 and 1910. She was for a time a student of May Manning, a well-known Dublin art teacher. She also took lessons from Lilly and Lolly Yeats (sisters of Jack B. Yeats and William Butler Yeats). At seventeen it was suggested that she enroll in The Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin to further her studies, and so she did. Jellett was central to the modern art movement in Ireland.
So where did the Modern Movement come from? The Modern Movement stems from the mid-nineteenth century. New approaches to art were sought and the expressive use of colour, non-traditional materials, and new techniques and mediums were experimented with. As modern art was defined and re-defined, sub-styles such as pointilism, fauvism, cubism, and such emerged.
Style and Influences
During her studies at The Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, Jellett developed a style that was more impressionist, more sympathetic to her subject matter, more aware of other strands and influences. At the time Irish art was divided between the softer impressionist work of Nathaniel Hone and Walter Osbourne, and the much harder, crisper work of William Orpen. The harder, crisper side of impressionism put an emphasis on draughtsmanship and line. Jellett chose the former style.
At eighteen Jellett moved to London to study at the Westminster Art School under Walter Sickert. She is quoted as saying, “Sickert being in the direct line of French Impressionist painting was an excellent stepping stone…” Jellett’s early drawings under Sickert were particularly fine, and the sense of release is revealed through the softer tones and the detailed and subtle realisation of form and character. The models used varied from old men, to negros, to girls with cropped hair wearing flamboyant clothes.
Sickert encouraged Jellett to study under André Lhote in Paris, who was known for his cubist paintings but most celebrated as a teacher. However, she thought Lhote wasn’t abstract enough. After a few months she began training under Albert Gleizes. Jellett was satisfied under Gleizes’s tutelage. He taught her to start with nothing but geometric shapes to bring life and movement to the painting. Also Gleizes’s theories on colour revolutionised Jellett’s painting style.
In her work, Jellett’s use of colour reflects what she saw as the inner rhythm of a subject. She believed in the ‘spiritual’ value of colour, and that colour harmony could be used to create extraordinarily beautiful and forceful works. From this experience Jellett called herself a ‘cubist’.
Decoration was the first abstract work Jellett showcased in Ireland. A number of coloured shapes are superimposed on one another, this creates a sense of depth on the flat surface of the panels. The eye is encouraged to explore the work in a circular movement with the relationship between the angles of the different shapes. This suggests an internal motion and rhythm. Although abstract, the piece strongly recalls icon paintings through the shape of the panel, the use of gold paint and the choice of tempera as a medium.
Jellett’s abstract work was initially rejected when it was introduced to Ireland. Later in her career she began to produce more representational pieces such as Achill Horses. In this piece Jellett uses a broad range of colours from earthy browns and reds, to olive greens and pale pinks. Jellett created a dynamic composition based on three horses. Two are standing on elevated ground silhouetted against a sky filled with spiralling forms. This is to suggest light and movement. They are balanced by the figure of the horse on the lower register whose darker colours anchor the structure of the painting. Jellett produced more representational pieces to make her work more accessible to the public.
Jellett is credited with introducing cubism to Ireland, and she became a central figure in the Modern Art Movement. She dedicated her life to modern art, and believed that art was an expression of spirituality. For Jellett, Celtic art was the national primitive art form and by modernising it with abstraction, she could revive a lost style and return its significance to Ireland. She also wanted to return spiritual health to a troubled Ireland with modern art. With her art style, and dedication to the modern art movement Mainie Jellett can be considered a modern artist.
Do you have a favourite style of art or favourite artist? Let me know!
Adam’s (2018). Lot 84: Achill Horses. [Online] Hyperlink https://www.adams.ie/41289/Mainie-Jellett-1897-1944-Achill-Horses-Oil-on-canvas-91-5-x-66cm-36-x-26-Signed-and-dated-1938-Provenance-From-the-collection-of-the-late-Dr-Eileen-McCarvill-her-sale-James-Adam-Sons-10th-July-1?ipp=All&keyword=&view=lot_detail (Accessed 24th January 2018)
Anon. (2018). Analysing Cubism: Mainie Jellett (1897-1944). [Online] Hyperlink http://www.crawfordartgallery.ie/ImagesCrawford/education/Mainie%20Jellett.pdf (Accessed 24th January 2018)
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O’ Connell, D. (2003). Jellett, Mary Harriet (Mainie). In: Lalor, B. (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Ireland. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.
Walker, D. (1997). Modern Art in Ireland. Dublin: Lilliput Press.
A Composition (Mainie Jellett, 1930s, National Gallery of Ireland)
Achill Horses (Mainie Jellett, 1938, Private Collection). [Online] Hyperlink https://presspack.rte.ie/mainie-achill-horses (Accessed 24th January 2018)
Decoration (Mainie Jellett, 1923, National Gallery of Ireland)
Mainie Jellett [Online] Hyperlink https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/homeandinteriors/designanddecor/the-work-of-irish-designer-mainie-jellett-348434.html (Accessed 24th January 2018)
Woman in Summer Hat (Mainie Jellett, 1918, Private Collection). [Online] Hyperlink https://www.whytes.ie/art/woman-in-summer-hat/121864/?SearchString=&LotNumSearch=&GuidePrice=&OrderBy=LN&ArtistID=16424&ArrangeBy=list&NumPerPage=15&offset=0 (Accessed 24th January 2018)