Every six years, the same eight paintings are traded between Dublin and London. Among them: Les Parapluies by Auguste Renoir, the artist’s last large-scale painting of Parisian urban life and, in the opinion of Sir Hugh Percy Lane, one of his best.
This art timeshare finds its origins in the First World War and, more specifically, in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915. Among the 1,198 passengers who were killed when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship, was Sir Hugh Percy Lane.
The famous philanthropist was less than 20 kilometres from the coast of County Cork, his birthplace, when he died. And his sudden death left the fate of Les Parapluies in limbo.
An Artistic Turning Point
Renoir painted Les Parapluies during a transitional period in his life, albeit a lengthy one. It’s uncertain how long he worked on it, but critics have pointed to the changing clothing styles as evidence that he painted it in stages from about 1881 to 1886.
Like Parisian fashion, Renoir changed during this time. He told the art dealer Ambrose Vollard that he had come “to the end of impressionism”, the style that had brought him, and the likes of Claude Monet, considerable fame.
The artist visited Italy in 1881 and was struck by the sharp ancient frescoes and classical art. It is around this period that he decided to give his paintings more structure.
And this decision is clear in Les Parapluies; most of the painting resembles his past impressionistic work, except for the woman in the foreground, who stands apart from the rest of the crowd.
Behind the woman, there is a snapshot of a lively Parisian street in which umbrella-wielding pedestrians are trying to negotiate their ways past each other.
To the woman’s right, a mother tries to shepherd her two daughters through the crowd. The younger daughter is armed with a hoop to trundle and seems fascinated by us, the viewers. But the mother seems amused rather than annoyed by her younger daughter’s pose.
The impressionistic snapshot captures brilliantly the motion of the human lives behind the woman in the foreground.
It’s not clear what movement the woman in the foreground is making, setting her apart from her surroundings. What truly makes her alien to the blurry umbrellas and people behind her, is the brightness and clarity with which she is painted. The family to her right seem to be in dreamlike soft focus; her face and hair is sharp and smooth.
She has a strange expression. At first glance, she appears happy, but there is some melancholy in her gaze, like she is remembering something that makes her happy and sad at the same time.
It wasn’t conviviality that led London and Dublin to share the painting. Rather, a dispute over Lane’s will.
Until 1913, the impressive collection had been on show in Ireland’s capital. From 1908 to 1913, Clonmel House on Harcourt Street had housed the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. The gallery, which was established by Lane and later named after him, is thought to have been the first public gallery of modern art in the world.
But Clonmel House was only a temporary home for it and the search for a more suitable, permanent building, was protracted and frustrating. So Lane decided to loan his 39 continental paintings, including Renoir’s Les Parapluies, to London until a suitable location was found in Dublin to house them.
His will at the time, perhaps, reflected his frustration with the uncertainty of the future of Dublin’s Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. In it, he entrusted his collection to London.
But here’s where the plot thickens.
Shortly before a journey to the United States in 1915, Lane added a codicil to his will, bequeathing his collection to Dublin. But while the change had been initialled three times, it hadn’t been witnessed. When Lane died, the British said they didn’t recognise the codicil.
Give Them Back
Renoir’s Lane’s aunt, Lady Augusta Gregory, spearheaded the efforts to recover the paintings from London.
She got the Irish government of the time to take the matter up with their English counterparts. But it still took a few decades to reach an arrangement. In 1929, W.T. Cosgrave raised the issue with Ramsay MacDonald. In 1948, John A. Costello spoke about it with Harold Macmillan. Finally, in 1959, when Sean Lemass was Taoiseach, it was agreed that half of the Lane Bequest would be shown in Dublin every five years.
In 1993, Britain, warming towards Ireland as the years passed, it seems, changed the arrangement so that 31 of the 39 paintings would stay in Dublin permanently. The remaining eight, of which Les Parapluis is one, would be divided and traded between the two capitals every six years. Which is the arrangement in place today.
You can see Les Parapluies by Auguste Renoir on the wall of the Hugh Lane Gallery Tuesday to Thursday from 10am to 6pm; Friday and Saturday from 10am to 5pm; and Sunday 11am to 5pm. The gallery is closed on Mondays.