World Art Day: Samuel Forde in Context

To celebrate World Art Day (15 April) we thought we’d do something a little bit different…

As an historical, art historical and literary hybrid, our project’s date range is relatively neat, spanning the length of Irish artist Samuel Forde’s twenty-three-year life from April 1805 to June 1828. Less than half of that life was given over to artistic activity, while Forde’s active career is represented by a still shorter period of three to four years. The wider scope of our project is to explore the artistic and literary cultures that Forde fed out of and, indeed, fed into and while much of that research is yet to be done, here’s a little taster of the artist in context.

John Butts' View of Cork (1755).  Image: © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Photo: Dara McGrath.

John Butts’ View of Cork (1755). Image: © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Photo: Dara McGrath.

Although, as of yet, we know comparatively little of Forde’s early life and influences, native Cork artists James Barry (1741-1806) and Nathaniel Grogan (1740-1807) were active right up until his birth, while Daniel Maclise (1806-70) and John Hogan (1800-58) were his friends and contemporaries. Indeed, Forde studied a collection of Greco-Roman sculptural casts (now housed at the Crawford Art Gallery) alongside Maclise and Hogan in the, then, newly founded Cork School of Art. The creation of these had been supervised by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) by order of Pope Pius VII and were unique in Ireland at that time. Beyond his art school studies, Forde is said to have frequented a local church on Carey’s Lane where a fine copy of the Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni’s Crucifixion hung above the altar. From excerpts from his (fabled, possibly lost) diaries, we also know that he was aware of the great artists that preceded him, marveling as he did in February 1828 at a print of the Fates which was then commonly attributed to Michelangelo (1475-1564).

February 25.—Yesterday saw Michael Angelo’s Fate shadowed for the first time—saw a small outline of them nine or ten years ago. I remember I did not think them Fate at all then. Though there is not majesty and terror enough about them, and the conception is certainly not adequate to the dignity of the subject; yet there is enough of power in it to proclaim the author possessed of great requisites in his art, requisites most lamentably wanting now a-days. Compared with this work all that I have done, almost without an exception, appears weak and inefficient, vapoury and unreal—practical, perhaps, but unsubstantial and insipid.—That would never do for me.

From this assessment by Forde we gain a clear insight into the mind of a young and ambitious visual arts practitioner of the early nineteenth century. Laying bare his artistic concerns and ambitions, Forde here subjects his own work to the harshest criticism and yet, it is revealing that he is also unafraid to pass judgment on such an Old Master as Michelangelo. Bridging the gap between the Old and Modern Masters, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) was a Spanish contemporary of the Irish Forde. Moreover, dying in the same year as Forde (1828), today marks the 185th anniversary of Goya’s own death.

The passing of both of these artists within a few short months of each other and in very different circumstances and locations nonetheless offers a pleasant resonance. Although cut down before he had yet achieved very much, Forde’s small oeuvre attests to his varied interests, including darker subjects such as the crucifixion, the war in heaven and the veiled prophet. Apart from his portraits and nudes, Goya is now well-known for his dark depictions of conflict, both physical and mental.

As a celebration of World Art Day then, considering the great Goya and forgotten Forde together in the wider context of 1828 it is perhaps fitting, by way of a stimulating (and rather striking) comparison, to allow their respective works speak for themselves: Goya’s Fire at Night (1793-4) and Forde’s Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828).*



*Goya’s Fire at Night (Private Collection) is in the public domain. Forde’s Fall of the Rebel Angels is here shown in detail and low resolution, image © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork (photo: Dara McGrath).


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