I have been writing a series on women in Irish art since October 2013 for TN2 Magazine, a cultural magazine published by students in Trinity College Dublin. The editors have kindly given me permission to reprint the articles here. The series aims to examine work by Irish women artists, and look at the contribution they have made to the art world. I am still writing the series – so there is plenty of art to come!
The first article focuses on Sarah Purser, a painter and stained glass artist who was influential in the establishment of many Irish art institutions. It certainly seems like she was a force to be reckoned with!
Women in Art: Sarah Purser
This piece is the first in a series exploring the works of Irish female artists. Across the art world, women have typically been left out of the Western canon. Art historian Linda Nochlin speaks of this in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” stating that there was little chance of success in the art world for those “who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male”. Feminist art theorists seek to rewrite the history of art, recovering these lost female artists.
TN2 recognises that this series is a tricky project, in that there is the risk of seeing the achievements of these artists as solely defined by gender, but it is a risk we are willing to take in order to draw attention to these artists, and show their importance to the art word, regardless of their gender. In Ireland there is a wealth of female artists who have made significant contributions to the development of the art world. They have been pioneers – be it founding institutions such as An Túr Gloine and Cuala Press, or bringing Cubism to this country. However, despite the changing views of their importance in the history of Irish art, they continue to be largely unrepresented in art collections, and unknown to the Irish public. This series will offer an introduction to these artists – their achievements, significance and works.
Sarah Henrietta Purser (1848-1943) was an Irish painter and stained glass artist, as well as an enthusiastic patron of the arts. Purser studied in Switzerland, Dublin and Paris. She first exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy of Art in 1872. Her studies in Paris lead to the adoption of both plein air and realist techniques. She began exhibiting portraits in the RHA in 1881, and in 1884 her portrait of Henry Gore Booth was described as being “utterly free from the cut and dry effect of the conventional portrait”. Following this, her portraits were displayed extensively in the RHA and in 1890 the RHA awarded her honorary academician status, the only recognition given to women at the time.
Her studio was a lively centre of creativity and debate for men and women alike, frequented by figures such as Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats, Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz. In 1903 she founded An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower), a stained glass enterprise active from 1903 to 1944, which involved such artists as Harry Clarke and Evie Hone. It was founded following the Irish Cultural Revival of the nineteenth century, to encourage the making of Irish stained glass. Purser’s role included creating stained glass panels, but also recruiting artists and delegating commissions. Her social and artistic connections were invaluable in this venture. Purser continued to arrange exhibitions, both at home and abroad, of modern artworks such as those by the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, and was instrumental in the setting up of the Hugh Lane gallery (then known as the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art). She was also on the board of the National Gallery of Ireland, and established the Friends of the National Collections.
Sarah Purser achieved full RHA status in 1924, becoming the first female artist to do so. Some of Purser’s paintings are on display in the Provost’s House, and one of her stained glass windows can be seen in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The image accompanying this article is of The Blue Hat (1923), an oil painting of Kathleen Kearney, Purser’s favourite model. It is one of a series of works showing leaders of the nationalist movement. It also reveals a lot about Purser’s technique – such as the influence of Impressionism in her work, seen in the loose brushwork. As an artist, but even more so as a patron and organiser, Sarah Purser was one of the leading figures of Irish art in the twentieth century.