James Barry was born in Water Lane, Cork on 11 October, 1741. He first studied painting under local artist John Butts, and in 1763 went to Dublin, studying with Jacob Ennis at the Drawing Schools of the Dublin Society. The politician Edmund Burke took an interest in his career and in 1764 provided him with an introduction to Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy in London. Encouraged by Reynolds and financed by Burke, he visited the Continent in 1765 until 1771. Barry had high intentions, and aspired to be a great history painter, following in the footsteps of Mantegna and Poussin. The strong moral and social content in his paintings show him to be an early Neo-Classicist, yet his life was thwarted by a strong romantic temperament, an argumentative nature, and financial misfortune.
After coming back to London in 1771, he turned to printmaking and illustrating in order to support himself. He also regularly exhibited works at the Royal Academy, becoming a member in 1773 and professor of painting in 1782. His famous cycle of history paintings at the Society of Arts was unveiled in 1783 to great acclaim, but Barry was paid a derisory £503 for his work. His outspoken criticisms directed against Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Academy, the Government and society in general eventually led to his expulsion from the Academy. Between 1783 and his death, he completed only four major history paintings, and none sold during his lifetime. He fell ill in 1803, and although Sir Robert Peel and the Society of Artists raised an annuity for him in 1805, he died in 1806.
In 1775 James Barry published a book entitled 'An Inquiry into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England', in which he attempted to promote the art of history painting in Britain. The following year he painted Ulysses and Polyphemus, a complex allegorical work which combines contemporary history, autobiography and classical mythology. On one level it is a double portrait of Barry and the statesman Edmund Burke. On another level it shows the classical hero Ulysses and a companion, who disguised themselves as sheep in order to escape from the cave of the blind giant Polyphemus. On an autobiographical level, it shows the politician Burke cautioning the impetuous artist, whose outspoken comments on the British Government's policies, particularly in relation to the American War of Independence, were to hasten his eventual expulsion from the Royal Academy.