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WORK OF THE WEEK | 5 November 2018

CAG.418 James Barry, Portraits of Barry and Burke in the Characters of Ulysses and a Companion fleeing from the cave of Polyphemus, c.1776, oil on canvas, 127 x 102 cm. Presented, Friends of the National Collections of Ireland, 1956.

WORK OF THE WEEK! Today we take a closer look at one of our most iconic works: James Barry’s catchily titled Portraits of Barry and Burke in the Characters of Ulysses and a Companion fleeing from the cave of Polyphemus (c.1776).

True to Barry’s outlook on the social and political function of art, this is a complex allegorical painting which operates on a number of levels.

Firstly, it is a double portrait of the Cork-born artist and his mentor, statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Secondly, it can be read as a history painting featuring Ulysses (Odysseus), the fabled king of Ithaca, and the Cyclops Polyphemus from Homer’s Odyssey. And finally – are you still with us!? – it may also be a knowing cautionary tale in which Burke warns the impetuous Corkman to hold his tongue against the British establishment.

Look closer: can you see beads of sweat on Barry’s forehead and the artist’s signature (Ja. Barry Pinxit, i.e. James Barry painted this) on the ram’s horn?!

Fun fact: this painting was presented to us by the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland in 1956.

As Gaeilge

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