Deputy Editor Ilaria Riccio reviews the exhibition dedicated to Sarah Purser currently on display at the National Gallery of Ireland.
Sarah Purser is a notable figure in Irish art history, as she was the first woman to be elected as a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1924. This recognition was a milestone for Purser as well as the arts world; her membership to the RHA meant that depictions of “private worlds” - thus, scenes from daily life, which are Purser’s most privileged subjects - were attributed artistic significance. After celebrating numerous Irish female artists in the “It Took a Century” exhibition last summer (which you can read here), the National Gallery of Ireland has now dedicated an entire exhibition to Purser. “Sarah Purser - Private Worlds” is a celebration of the artist’s ability to turn domestic scenes - her “private worlds” - into subjects worthy of artistic consideration. That the protagonists of Purser’s paintings are mostly women, often those from her private life, add to the importance of celebrating her personal yet profoundly relatable art.
'Sarah Purser - Private Worlds’ is a celebration of the artist’s ability to turn domestic scenes - her ‘private worlds’ - into subjects worthy of artistic consideration. That the protagonists of Purser’s paintings are mostly women, often those from her private life, add to the importance of celebrating her personal yet profoundly relatable art.
The title of the exhibition highlights the centrality of domesticity to Purser’s work. Yet looking at the collection of paintings selected for the exhibit, what emerges is that, to her, domesticity is not confined to the mundane aspects of daily lives; it extends to moments of personal solitude in which subjectivity takes centre stage. Indeed, the paintings with the most emotional charge are those depicting women deep in their thoughts, with Purser’s technique allowing viewers to grasp the emotions her subjects are experiencing simply by looking attentively at their facial expressions. A clear example of this is “Le Petit Déjeuner” (French for “breakfast”), which depicts a woman having breakfast whilst deep in thought. The pensiveness of the subject, who is modelled on Italian vocal student Maria Feller, can be inferred from her stillness, pervading the painting with tension and suggesting the gravity of the woman’s thoughts.
The paintings with the most emotional charge are those depicting women deep in their thoughts, with Purser’s technique allowing viewers to grasp the emotions her subjects are experiencing simply by looking attentively at their facial expressions.
“Young Lady With a Daisy” is another demonstration of Purser’s ability to capture female emotions in her paintings. The girl at the centre of the artwork sits in a natural setting, holding a daisy in both her hands; she appears preoccupied, and the way she tightens the flower might suggest an attempt to remain grounded in reality. Nature as a mirror for female emotions also manifests in “Weeds”, where the calming state of the woman sitting by a river’s bank matches her tranquil surroundings.
Alongside emotions, Purser’s paintings turn every moment of a woman’s life into a work of art. For instance, the intimate painting “Woman With a Fan” is the culmination of Purser’s French influences as she depicts a woman in her undergarments, a robe, and hair tied in a messy bun. The voyeuristic undertones of this painting celebrate natural feminine beauty, contrasting with the formality that is typical of portraits. Similarly, “The Stocking Knitter” consecrates a daily activity in women’s lives to art history by depicting the craft solemnly yet realistically. Lastly, Purser celebrates the female experience of motherhood in two paintings, “Mother With a Child and a Young Woman”, but most notably, in “The Pearl Pendant”. The latter artwork centres on the pearl pendant at the end of the woman’s necklace, which also highlights that she is pregnant through its focus on the hand gently placed upon her abdomen. With pregnancy being a rare subject in art at the time, Purser premises her portrayals of motherhood on realism, rather than sentimentality.
Purser’s paintings turn every moment of a woman’s life into a work of art.
What strikes us about this exhibition is the complexity Purser attributes to female emotions, and her skilful technique results in paintings charged with such realism that they are highly relatable, leaving the audience reflecting on their own subjectivity. More importantly, this exhibition will allow visitors to appreciate the simplicity of their daily lives, finding art in ordinary things.
“Sarah Purser: Private Worlds” will be on display at the National Gallery of Ireland until the 25th February 2024. Admission to the exhibit is free.