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2 Paintings in Collection

Mary Swanzy


(1882 - 1978) Ireland

Works in Public Collections

Hugh Lane Gallery (Formerly Municipal Galley of Modern Art), Dublin, Ireland; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland; Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, Ireland; Ulster Museum, Belfast

Selected Exhibitions

Naples Collects, Artis-Naples, The Baker Museum, Naples, Fl, 2023

Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers included

Looking at the Stars: Irish Art at the University of Notre Dame, Snite Museum of Art, Univ. of Notre Dame, IN, 2019

Mary Swanzy: Voyages, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2018/19

Pursuit of Abstraction, Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, Miami Beach, FL, 2016. Traveled to Artis-Naples, The Baker Museum, Naples, FL, 2017

Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers Included

Analysing Cubism, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2013

Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition: The Jeri L. Waxenberg Collection, Boise Art Museum, ID, 2002

Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers and Cubist Study of Skyscrapers Included

Uncovered and Recovered: Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Sun Valley Museum of Art, Ketchum, ID, 1999

Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers and Cubist Study of Skyscrapers Included


Mary Swanzy: Voyages, Sean Kissane, Editor, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2019

Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition: The Jeri L. Waxenberg Collection, by Kristin Poole, JLW Collection, 2002

Uncovered and Recovered: Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Curator, Kristin Poole, Sun Valley Museum of Art, Ketchum, ID, 1999

Other Resources

Mary Swanzy: Voyages, Sean Kissane, Curator, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2019 introduction to exhibition:

Born 1882 Dublin, Ireland
Died 1978 London, England

Mary Swanzy often defined herself as a woman who grew up in an era when “Ladies have to paint pussy-woosies and doggie-woggies.” Swanzy painted neither, working outside the accepted conventions during her long career. She came of age at a time when modernism was rapidly shifting how art was made and interpreted. Swanzy was independent and responsive to the new approaches, exploring numerous artistic styles throughout her lifetime from post-impressionism, fauvism and cubism to orphism, futurism and symbolism. She was the first Irish painter to work in the cubist style and among a handful of women who introduced modernism to Ireland.

Swanzy grew up in a comfortable home environment where her artistic interests were encouraged. She was the second of three daughters to Sir Henry Rosborough, an eye surgeon and his wife, Mary. Swanzy was sent to finishing school at the Lycée in Versailles, France and a day school in Freiburg, Germany where she became fluent in French and German. The bulk of her young art education was at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art where she was taught by John Butler Yeats, a portrait painter and the father of W.B. Yeats. Her formal education encouraged an appreciation for artists of the Renaissance, an influence that can be seen in her earliest and later work.

Swanzy first exhibited in 1905 at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), where she continued to show for the next five years. (Founded in 1823, the RHA is the oldest artist led arts institution in Ireland.) In 1906 she presented a portrait of her father that was done in the tradition of academic realism. Landscape painter Nathaniel Hone declared it “the best picture painted in Dublin in 30 years.” Despite the early praise, the exciting challenges posed by European modernism attracted the young artist and upended the conventional track she was on. Sometime between 1905 and 1906 Swanzy made her way to Paris.

Swanzy was in Paris at a moment of profound change. While she furthered her formal studies at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière and Atelier Colarossi, she was also shaped by informal exposure to the artists of Paris’ avant-garde. She was occasionally included in the salon of Gertrude Stein and became acquainted with the work of Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and Daumier. These revolutionary influences find their way into her art.

When Swanzy returned to Dublin she was one of a handful of talented female artists working in the modernist style including Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone. Swanzy's family urged her to follow the conventional path of Ireland's artists, which meant becoming a portrait painter and teaching. While neither of these pursuits interested her, she did make some portraits as well as illustrations for periodicals to support herself.

Her first one woman show in 1913 opened to mixed reviews. The negative response from a conservative Irish public did not discourage her. In 1919 she had an exhibition of nearly 50 paintings and artist Sarah Purser noted that Swanzy’s work lacked the melancholy found in so much of Irish art. Soon thereafter the death of Swanzy’s parents brought financial independence and she responded by traveling the world. She spent time in Italy, Saint Tropez, the Pacific Islands and Czechoslovakia. She made paintings of each location’s local life as well as the flora and fauna present using colors and patterns that were bold and demonstrated a knowledge of Fauvism. In 1914, in an exhibition at the Salon des Independents, Swanzy exhibited alongside other modernists including Robert Delaunay whose Orphic-Cubist works influenced her direction. In 1916 she was included in an exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery in London and the following year she exhibited again in the Salon des Independents in Paris.

Some contemporary historians have noted that Swanzy's gender may have done more to free her than restrict her. Optimistic as that perspective may be, Swanzy certainly had the resources, leisure and will to pursue what she wished. She was not obligated to generate income or concerned about establishing a reputation. Had Swanzy been born male, it might have been more difficult to resist the pressure to work in the accepted style and cultivate a following. But she noted the role that gender played in her life stating If I had been born Henry instead of Mary my life would have been very different. Fortunately, today Swanzy is recognized for her contribution and her reputation as Ireland’s first modernist and first cubist painter is secure.

It is difficult to determine exactly when Swanzy painted the images included in the Wolfson Collection. Like many other artists of the time, she did not date her works, but the influence of cubism and futurism on these paintings cannot be denied. Swanzy borrows the cubist strategy of fragmenting the form, and combines it with the futurists' approach of layering pattern to simulate motion. The skillful use of color and light, the considered placement of curved and angular forms work to make these two images among Swanzy's most compelling. There is a dynamism and energy evident that many modernists sought in their work. Sean Kissane who curated Swanzy’s most recent retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (2018) has dated Propellers, a painting which is very similar in composition to Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers, to 1942 stating that Swanzy more than likely painted them after living through the Blitz in London.

The paintings were done after she had digested the influences of futurism and cubism and before her cubist style softened, becoming less mathematical and more lyrical. Cubist Study of Skyscrapers illustrates how Swanzy was influenced by her travels. In this painting the arched doorways of San Gimignano, a medieval walled city in Tuscany, which Swanzy drew while she was visiting, have been transformed here into futurist skyscrapers. Her choice of earth tones for the Italianate architecture and the bolder tones of purples and yellows for the skyscrapers adds to the sense of the past evolving into a brighter future. This painting glorifies the city to come, containing the upward, forward motion typical of futurist images.

The same celebration of technology's promise can be found in Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers where bright blues and purples and the surging diagonal of the whirling propellers illustrates the hope placed in the new machine age, a remarkably optimistic perspective given the horror that she had witnessed in London during the Blitz. In looking closely at the image, the skyscrapers rest on a horizon line with the buildings reflecting onto an underlayer, suggesting that three quarters of the image is taking place below the surface. Perhaps Swanzy is referencing Sigmund Freud’s theories about the unconscious mind; ideas that were in wide circulation at the time. The implied motion and the dynamic lines that cut through this composition also link it stylistically with the more formal properties proposed by futurists. The fragmentation and expression evident in these canvases link Swanzy with the cubism of Robert Delaunay and Jacques Villon.

Although Swanzy was not engaged in political activities, her cousin, Oswald Swanzy, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, was killed during the Irish War of Independence. The violence that followed that incident was disturbing and may have been the reason she chose to leave Ireland. In 1920 she went to Quebec and then through the United States to California and on to Honolulu where she stayed for several months. She then sailed 2,500 miles to Samoa. It was in Samoa in 1923 and 1924 that Swanzy produced a series of works that show the rich botanical beauty of the island as well as a number of images of women at work and at leisure among the palms. In these artworks she uses a cubist style with a stylized but naturalistic motif. Again, movement is created through a patterning of curved geometric shapes.

Swany returned to Ireland briefly in 1925 and exhibited three of her Samoan paints at the RHA. She had an one-woman show in the Galerie Bernheim Jeune in Paris in October 1925, for which she received a letter of congratulation from Gertrude Stein. But generally, Swanzy distrusted galleries, believing they were in the purview of business and that commerce and publicity were not proper pursuits for a true artist. She chose to sell her work privately from the mid 1920s until the 1970s. Unfortunately, she was also very shy and burdened by an upbringing that taught her to be modest and genteel. And yet she was committed to the belief that the artist's job was to make art and follow one's vision.

In 1926 Swanzy settled in South London where she lived for the remainder of her life. In 1943 she had a one-person exhibition at the Dublin Painter's Gallery. After that she participated in group exhibitions around London, which included paintings by other important modernists. She exhibited at St George's Gallery, London in 1946 along with Henry Moore, Marc Chagall and William Scott.

Swanzy was deeply affected by the despair and destruction created by World War II. The allegory that is reminiscent of Renaissance art reappears in her work during this time. Her paintings become more narrative—some allegorical and others surrealistic. Toward the end of her life, the work became more lyrical, less disturbing. In 1949 Swanzy was made an honorary member of the RHA. She lived the latter part of her life in obscurity in London but continued to paint up to her death at age 96. Ten years before she died, Swanzy was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin.

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