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Work of the Week | 1 March 2021

CAG.60 Margaret Clarke, The Foundling, c.1925, oil on board, 37.5 x 30 cm. Bequeathed, Dr Lennox Robinson, 1959. © the artist’s estate.

The Foundling (c.1925) by Margaret Clarke is an intriguing painting that perhaps prompts more questions than it does answers, not least in terms of representation. Depicting a white woman cradling a black baby, it is likely a study for the artist’s Bath Time at the Crèche.

The larger subject painting (127 x 101 cm), which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, offers us further clues to this unusual subject matter – at least, unusual for 1920s Ireland – and includes eleven other children being readied for their bath by two women. The model for both women can be identified as the Clarke family’s maid, Julia O’Brien, who appears in numerous other works by the artist.

But what is the relationship between central woman and child as proposed by these two paintings, and what does it tell (or ask) the viewer about gender and ethnicity in post-Independence Ireland?

The child is both compositionally and symbolically central, as art historian Fionna Barber suggests, with both paintings raising important questions about whiteness and blackness in art and national identity formation. “In its radical positioning of both race and femininity,” Barber notes, the larger painting “opens up troubling questions about our understanding of this period of Irish history that have yet to be fully addressed, but whose significance can still be felt today.”

Painted at a time when Margaret Clarke (1888-1961) had young children of her own, The Foundling was later bequeathed to us by the artist’s friend, playwright Lennox Robinson (1886-1958). It is featured in lucid abnormalities (Gibson Galleries) until 28 March.

Tune into The Arts House with Elmarie Mawe on Cork’s 96FM and C103FM every Sunday morning as Conor Tallon chats with assistant curator Michael Waldron about each WORK OF THE WEEK! Listen back to this week's chat here:


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