Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer invited to National Gallery’s birthday party

It’s the gallery’s 160th birthday, while Hugh Lane Gallery attracts record numbers to its Warhol exhibition

It’s hard to believe now, but when the National Gallery of Ireland first opened its doors on January 30th, 1864, it had just 112 works of art on display.

Over the years, with the assistance of an annual purchase allowance, this has continued to rise, and the collection today has about 14,000 pieces, as well as a “unique and historically significant” library for the study of art history. This amounts to more than 100,000 published volumes and “significant archival holdings”, according to the museum.

Furthermore, substantial bequests, such as the contents of Russborough House from Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, which saw 223 paintings, 33 engravings and 49 works of sculpture, not to mind a library and an array of period furniture, helped build our national collection to what it is today.

Having expanded three times over the years, it was also left a substantial bequest by playwright George Bernard Shaw. A third of royalties from his estate were left to the gallery in gratitude for the time Shaw spent there in his youth. He called it a place to which he owed, “much of the only real education I ever got as a boy in Éire”.


It was fitting then, that when the gallery waited to welcome its millionth visitor in 2023, it was two young children, Matilda and Orla Dowling, in the company of their mother, Sorcha, who came through the door.

The gallery says its big exhibitions, including Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rulebreaker; Lavery on Location; and It Took a Century: Women Artists and the RHA, helped visitor attendance increase by 29 per cent on 2022 figures, marking the highest attendance since 2017. Such has been the success of facilitating greater access to high-quality images through creative commons licensing – including more than 1,500 images of iconic artworks by the likes of Degas, Orpen and Jellett – almost 13,000 downloads from the gallery have been completed by people all over the globe.

As well as celebrating its birthday this year, it celebrates another milestone: its first ever female director, Dr Caroline Campbell, who was born and raised in Belfast. She succeeded Sean Rainbird in November 2022. In an interview with the BBC News NI on her appointment, she recounted how she had first visited the gallery aged 16.

A special programme of free events is planned for August 10th, the 170th anniversary of the National Gallery of Ireland Act, which established the now 160-year-old institution.

Current and upcoming exhibitions, which are free to the public, include the Zurich Portrait and Young Portrait Prizes, which showcase contemporary portraiture from artists living in Ireland and Irish artists living abroad. This runs until March 10th.

Sarah Purser: Private Worlds, continues until February 25th, in the Hugh Lane Room, where she presents her works in oil, “highlighting her interest in a more intimate style of portraiture and in scenes of domestic life”.

Running from March 23rd to September 1st, is Walter Frederick Osborne: The Guinness Portrait, a full-length portrait of Mary Guinness with daughter Margaret. It was presented as a heritage gift to the gallery. Currently on display, and now part of the national collection, is Titania Enchanting Bottom by Harry Clarke. It is the only piece of Clarke’s work inspired by Shakespeare, and was purchased by the State last year.

A ticketed event – to cover the astronomical costs of shipping and insurance – is Turning Heads: Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer, which will open on February 24th until May 26th. It is a collaboration between the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp and the gallery. Highlights include Vermeer’s exquisitely detailed Girl with the Red Hat, and Rembrandt’s The Laughing Man.

Goodbye Warhol, hello Bacon

While the Hugh Lane Gallery has bid farewell to its blockbuster Andy Warhol Three Times Out exhibition – which made the highest visitor count in the gallery’s history – there are still remarkable art collections on display, including Francis Bacon’s studio. There are also free, but ticketed, concerts in the sculpture hall at its popular Sundays at Noon concert series.

Frescoes of Kindness

Over at the Royal Hibernian Academy, John Kindness, The Odyssey – inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses – is showing until February 18th. Kindness will be running a fresco painting workshop over the weekend of February 10th-11th (€200).

Contemporary art

CAGA, Dublin’s Contemporary Art Gallery Association, is a good place to start if you’re interested in modern art, and it’s great ramble around the city to visit 10 of the city’s finest contemporary galleries. Exhibitions include Leah Beggs: Everything Smells Different When it Rains, opening February 8th and running until March 2nd at the Solomon Gallery, as well as Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s new series, Dwelling. This exhibition also opens on February 8th, and invites the viewer to “consider architecture, to consider dwelling beyond design and technical construction”, and runs at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery until March 2nd.,,,

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