Irish Peasant Children
Oil on canvas
33 x 29 in
Exhibited: RHA 1847; British Institution, 1847
Provenance: Gore-Booth family, Lissadell House
Executed at the height of the Famine, Irish Peasant Children seems like a gentle blend of landscape and genre painting, but far from it. The figures are not integrated into the landscape (as convention dictated) but painted dominantly, suggesting an awareness of contemporary art and political events.
The children represent three faces of Ireland: beautiful, mischievous, and potentially dangerous. The barefooted girl in the red skirt and plaid shawl has that Spanish, look found in the west of Ireland; the boy behind the rock is quick and wily and probably a handful; the girl on the left has seen terrible things, and has a desperate air, indeed the bottle in her hand is cocked like a missile. There are no parents to look out for these children, and their different characteristics hint at a disintegrating family unit.
The swirling mist represents the national tragedy unfolding. The idyllic landscape is redolent of classical serenity, but the gathering storm hints at social and political reprisals to come. This is the work of an audacious artist insinuating subversive material into the salons of Britain. The seductive beauty of the painting made it palatable to audiences normally hostile to such material.