Grace Mitchell (1868-1953) was raised in Aberdeen, and exhibited her early work with the Aberdeen Artists Society. Leaving Aberdeen around 1899, she pursued her artistic studies in Brussels in the Ernest Blanc Garic Academy. The Academy accepted female students, but they had to use a separate entrance. In Paris, she attended the Decluse Academy, and then the Academy Julian where she met Paul Henry. Through Paul Henry, the American artist James McNeill Whistler came to influence her work, leading to the prevalence of nocturnal scenes and affecting her choice both of subject and colour.
Her painting The Girl in White (1912 Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin) is reminiscent of Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862, National Gallery of Art, Washington) in its subject, its controlled brushwork and as a tonal study. Paul Henry and Grace Mitchell were married in London in 1903, having moved there a couple of years earlier to further their artistic careers. Their trip to Achill in 1910, intended to last a fortnight, became a nine-year stay. Both artists painted extensively during these years, but in very different styles. Paul Henry’s Irish landscapes are typically muted in tone and focus on lake and mountain scenes. In contrast, Grace Henry often painted nocturnal scenes, working out of doors but using artificial lights to aid her in her compositions. In Evening Star, Achill (1912, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin) her use of colour is particularly striking in the vivid blue of the sky. Her works from this period show both the use of a rich palette, and a concern with atmospheric effects. She also painted figural groups in the west of Ireland. Top of the Hill (c.1920, Limerick City Gallery of Art) is a warm scene which gives a sense not just of the western landscape, but also a sense of the community. The painting shows a group of women stopping for a chat at the top of a hill. One woman looks out of the painting, smiling at the viewer. Their shawls and head-scarves, and the green fields and rolling clouds, are typical of portrayals of rural Ireland. However, Henry’s style, with its bold colours and heavy outlines, is very striking.
Along with her husband Grace Henry was a founding member of the Dublin Society of Painters which sought to promote young Irish artists. During the 1920s and 1930s she travelled in France and Italy, training under André Lhote, whose students Evie Hone, Mary Swanzy and Mainie Jellett were to bring Cubism to Ireland. However, his influence is not as strong on Grace Henry’s work, which never fully adopts a Cubist style. Grace Henry’s work has often been overshadowed by that of her husband, and the inscription on one of her paintings in the Hugh Lane Gallery reads “Mrs Paul Henry”. However, an examination of their work shows that Grace Henry was the more adventurous of the two – her works are more varied, and show modern influences, such as that of Cubism and Japanese prints. The Henrys exhibited together in St Stephen’s Green Gallery and the Magee Gallery in Belfast, among other venues, up until their formal separation in the early 1930s. Following this, she continued to travel and to paint. Grace Henry was made an honorary member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1949 and her work can now be seen in many Irish art institutions.
Women in Art is an ongoing series I am writing for TN2 Magazine, with the aim of rediscovering works by Irish women artists, and showing the important contributions these artists have made to the development of Irish art.