One of the most striking ideas around paganism during the Victorian and Edwardian Era was the idea of young maidens dancing naked in the pale moonlight. This idealisation of the Celtics was one of the driving factors for Mainie Jellett to paint Nudes Dancing round a Fountain by Moonlight. This fantastical idea, propagated predominantly by men at the time, left its mark on one female artist of the day, the aforementioned Mainie Jellett.
The recognition of the beauty in the female figure turned Jellett from the average female painter, who was often overlooked or just generally ignored, into a master artist that is internationally recognised. Her fame even allowed her to compete in the 1928 Olympics in the painting category, much to the pride of the recently formed Irish Free State.
Mainie Jellett in the present day is now known for two different styles she used, Cubism – where flat, harsh lines are popularly done in abstract painting – and rather contrary, the more finely detailed nudes of female models. One possible reason for her appreciation for female nude art could be her personal love and attraction as she was a known lesbian of the time. She not only lived openly but had a life partner in a fellow artist, Evie Hone, who fostered Jellett’s love of Cubism.
Despite the criticism they received for the new art form, they continued to pursue it. Their love of Cubism could not be broken by the harsh words of critics and was a style they both used until their deaths. They ultimately moved to Paris together where they both studied and practised art. Together they became amongst the first out lesbians not just in the Irish art community, but in Ireland itself.
Just as her painting Nudes Dancing round a Fountain by Moonlight is one of her most famous nude paintings, her most famous modern art piece was Decoration. Despite much of Decoration made of harsh cubes and lines, it clearly depicts a veiled woman holding an infant. This is meant to symbolise Mary with the baby Jesus, the idea stemming from her devout faith.
Rather unfortunately, the Irish Free State, still being relatively new, was an isolated and traditional country. Despite the wide acclaim the painting received in other parts of Europe, Irish art critics heavily criticised the piece. Rather than give up in defeat or switch back to her previous art forms she gave personal lectures to young Irish artists to open them up to outside ideas and their own personal uniqueness. Not only that, but for the rest of her career she gave debates on Cubism and modern art to Irish audiences to encourage acceptance of the new art form.
By the end of her career, modern art was accepted in Ireland, and she was known for her unique style of combining religion and Irish art. She drew inspiration from the Book of Kells, natural Irish landscapes, and the Cláirseach making her art distinctly her own and of Irish origin.
Unfortunately no one’s success lasts forever. For this pioneering artist tragedy struck suddenly and struck hard as she developed Pancreatic cancer. She died of Pancreatic cancer at the age of 46 at St. Vincent’s Hospital, creating her last piece a year prior to her death. Her childhood friend, Elizabeth Yeats, wrote her now famous eulogy. Upon her death, the annual art exhibition she helped found – the Irish Exhibition of Living Art – created a scholarship in her memory.
Alexandra Stuebner – Arts and Lifestyle Writer
Featured image of the work Nudes Dancing round a Fountain by Moonlight is credited to Mainie Jellett and the National Gallery of Ireland: https://nationalgalleryimages.ie/search/?searchQuery=%22NGI.4334%22
The featured image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/