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Sunday, October 26, 2014

James Barry

Commerce, or the triumph of the Thames, 1777-84, James Barry,            
as seen on the wall of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of            
Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, London.
James Barry, Self-portrait, 1803
Most artists in today's world are relatively amiable, modest, even-tempered, and quite amenable to suggestions, compromise, and constructive criticisms. It's almost a fact of life that they have to be in order to succeed. In comparing artists now and in the past, we find that, for the most part, those qualities have been reasonably present insofar as great artists of the past were concerned. We all know, of course, that the multi-talented Michelangelo had his moments, times when no one would want to be within fifty yards of the great sculptor lest they incur the man's wrath (he was not one to bathe regularly either). History tells us Caravaggio had a vicious temper and that Edouard Manet may have been somewhat temperamental to live with, but by and large these are the exceptions and one suspects stories not without some degree of exaggeration. That was definitely not the case as we think back in regard to the 18th-century British painter of history and mythology, James Barry.
Before going further, I should stop and clear up any possible confusion. James Barry, the artist, was not the more well-known J.M. Barrie the writer, the "father" of Peter Pan. Both were named James and had the same last name though J.M. Barrie spelled his name differently and lived roughly a hundred years after James Barry the painter, who was Irish and born in 1741. That's pretty much where any similarities ended too, by the way. James Barry was born in Cork, Ireland, the son of a builder and part time coastal trader. Considered a child prodigy at drawing, the boy persuaded his father to allow him to study art, first with a local painter, then at schools in Cork and Dublin where he began producing large-scale works based upon Greek Mythology and religious subjects.
Baptism of King Cashel by St. Patrick, ca. 1761, James Barry
Edmund Burke, ca. 1774, James Barry
Barry first came to prominence in 1762 when his Baptism of King Cashel by St. Patrick (above, a natural choice since he was Irish). More importantly, he came to the notice of Edmund Burke. Burke was a wealthy Irish member of Parliament, and an early supporter of the American Revolution. Burke liked Barry's work and persuaded some of his likeminded friends to help make it possible for Barry to travel to the mainland of Europe to further his studies in art. Barry left England for Paris in 1765 and was to spend the next several years studying the Renaissance old masters, traveling about the continent from Paris to Rome, Florence, Bologna, eventually ending up in Venice before returning to England in 1771. During that whole time he wrote lots of letters back to his sponsors but painted only two paints, Adam and Eve and a Philoctetes.

Death of General Wolfe, 1773, James Barry
Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida, 1773, James Barry
Back in England, Barry painted two mythological works, a Venus and a Galatea so well received they were compared to similar efforts by Raphael and Titian. The following year (1773), Burke painted Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida (left). For his friend and patron, Burke, he painted Mercury inventing the lyre, and Narcissus. So long as he stuck with mythological subjects, Barry seems to have done okay. But when he switched to history painting with his Death of General Wolfe (French and Indian War, in Canada), his decision to paint the stark reality of battle caused him to depict both warring armies in battle-worn, even primitive uniforms, which  marked the beginning of his downfall in popularity. His work was compared unfavorably with that of the American painter, Benjamin West, painting of the same incident, and the portraiture of the British master of the "Grand Style," Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The Great Room of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and
Commerce after 1781 when James Barry got done with it. 
Adverse criticism brought out the worst in James Barry. He began a feud with Reynolds that lasted the rest of their lives and even had a falling out with his chief patron Edmund Burke over retouch work Barry refused to do on a portrait of Burke (above, right). Burk turned his patronage to Reynolds, which infuriated Barry. From that point on, jealous as hell, Barry became something of the "bad boy" of British art, his reputation falling into decline and his likability following closely behind. His design plans to decorate the new St. Paul's Cathedral fell through when the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London couldn't agree on Burke's subject, the rejection of Christ by the Jews. Though embittered by the London academic establishment, of which he was technically a member, Barry joined a list of other prominent artists, including West and Reynolds, in a proposal to decorate the Great Room of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (today the Royal Society of Arts). That too came to naught for lack of agreement among the artists as to subject matter.

The progress of human knowledge and Culture, 1777-81, James Barry
This time, however, Barry saw an opportunity for his own benefit, offering to do the entire room on his own in return for the cost of paint, canvas, and models. The one stipulation he insisted upon was a free choice as to the subjects of the six paintings needed to cover the bare walls. The British, always on the lookout for a good deal, accepted his offer. Later, his work meeting with general approval by all, Barry was paid a pittance for his efforts. The painting, Commerce, or the triumph of the Thames (top), was the fourth of the six. It's companion piece, The progress of human knowledge and Culture (above) was touted by the English critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, as "Britain's late, great answer to the Sistine Chapel." Michelangelo would have gone ballistic.

The Birth of Pandora, 1791-1804, James Barry, his last painting.
Despite the relative success of his "Great Room" paintings, Barry was no more appreciated as an artist than before, and as a result, his temperament likewise failed to improve. In fact, it grew worse as he took to writing in the "art press" of his day criticizing and berating the Royal Academy, of which he'd been a member since 1771. As a result, Barry became the first and only member (until modern times) to formally be expelled from the group. The expulsion cost him is thirty-pound per year salary, though his few remaining friends managed to pull together a thousand-pound annuity to see to his financial needs along with a house in with to live and paint. Ironically, James Barry died in 1806 while working on a painting he titled The Birth of Pandora. Maybe her box should have remained closed.

Kinderzene, a painting so out of character for Barry both in style and content as to lead one to question its attribution. But then again, some art historians believe James Barry may have, in fact, been a woman, secretly living her entire life as a man.


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