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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Irish Elegy

Photo: Spike Mafford / Zocalo Studios. Courtesy of the Friday Foundation

Irish Elegy


Robert Motherwell

American, 1915-1991

“Without ethical consciousness, a painter is only a decorator,” wrote the artist, who studied literature and philosophy before he turned to art. Between 1948 and 1965, Motherwell painted over one hundred Elegy paintings that mourn the political tragedies in Europe, most notably the overthrow of the Spanish Republican government in the late 1930s, which ushered in decades of fascist terror on the continent. In color, theme, and composition, Irish Elegy is unique within the Elegy series. It was painted as tensions were building between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland. The affinity and concern for Ireland likely had several sources, including the artist’s Irish ancestry and that of several close friends and his admiration for writers James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.
Acrylic on canvas
69 1/2 x 83 3/4 in. (176.5 × 212.8 cm)
Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis
Provenance: The artist; [Knoedler Contemporary Art, New York]; purchased by Jane and Richard E. Lang, Seattle, Washington, 1975; Friday Foundation, Seattle, Washington, 2018; Seattle Art Museum, 2020
Photo: Spike Mafford / Zocalo Studios. Courtesy of the Friday Foundation
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistoryNew York, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Robert Motherwell, Sept. 30 - Nov. 28, 1965 (organized under the auspices of the International Council at the Museum of Modern Art: Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Stedelijk Museum; London, England, Whitechapel Art Gallery; Brussels, Belgium, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Essen, Germany, Museum Folkwang; Turin, Italy, Museo Civico, Galleria d’Arte Moderna). Text by Frank O’Hara. Cat. no. 87, reproduced p. 71.

San Francisco Museum of Art, Robert Motherwell: Works on Paper, Feb. 20 - Mar. 18, 1967, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Durham, North Carolina, Duke University; Minneapolis, University of Minnesota; Saint Joseph, Minnesota, College of St. Benedict; Salt Lake City, University of Utah; San Antonio, White Memorial Museum; Tampa, Library Gallery, University of South Florida; Houston, Contemporary Arts Association; Baltimore Museum of Art; Bloomington, Indiana University; Boulder, University of Colorado; Riverside, University of California; Sacramento State College) [Irish Elegy shown in San Francisco only].

Toledo, Ohio, Toledo Museum of Art, Paintings and Collages by Robert Motherwell, Nov. 2 - Dec. 7,1969 (Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Jan. 9 - Feb. 15, 1970; Palo Alto, California, Stanford University Art Museum [as New Works by Robert Motherwell], Apr. 14 - May 17, 1970). Cat. no. 15.

Seattle, Washington, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, One Night of Color, Feb. 6, 1981.

Seattle, Washington, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Art in America: Washington Collections—An American Tradition: Abstraction, Dec. 4, 1981 - Jan. 17, 1982.

Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Robert Motherwell, Oct. 1 - Nov. 27, 1983 (Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles Museum of Art, Jan. 5 - Mar. 4, 1984; San Francisco, California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Apr. 12 - June 3, 1984; Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, June 21 - Aug. 5, 1984; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Sept. 15 - Nov. 4, 1984) [Irish Elegy not shown in Los Angeles]. Cat. no. 44, p. 127, reproduced p. 85.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, The Richard and Jane Lang Collection, Feb. 2 - Apr. 1, 1984. Cat. no. 33, pp. 46-47, reproduced.

New York, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Robert Motherwell, Dec. 3, 1984 - Feb. 3, 1985. Cat. no. 27.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection, Oct. 15, 2021 - Nov. 27, 2022. Text by Jack Flam. No cat. no., pp. 11, 38, 44, 138-143, 190, reproduced pp. 10, 139 (pl. 14), 183.

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