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Men of the West by Sean Keating
Ruth Keating, Collections Intern
Nationalism was the driving force behind much of Sean Keating’s most important works. Keating viewed Ireland’s struggle to forge a new identity around the time of the 1916 Easter Rising and the emergence of the Irish Free State as an opportunity to lead a revival in Irish nationalism through his painting. He was an idealist and used defiant and often subversive imagery to convey the pride he felt in the traditional customs of the Irish peasant and his sorrow at their decline.
Much influenced by mentor and friend William Orpen, Keating studied at Dublin Municipal School of Art. Orpen’s teaching methods were held in high esteem and under his tutelage; Keating won the Taylor Gold Medal in 1915. He was awarded fifty pounds which allowed him to go to England to work under Orpen as a studio assistant. When conscription was enforced in Britain later that year, Sean Keating decided to return to Ireland to escape from a war that he did not believe in and to paint the people of Aran. He and many other artists and writers felt that Ireland needed to commit to the expression of its Gaelic heritage and to find an authentic aesthetic to fit this identity.
Keating travelled to Aran with artist and friend Harry Clarke and was profoundly affected by the landscape and lifestyle of the people he found there. Living in close communities, he considered the people of the west to be strong, hardworking and relatively untouched by political turmoil. He felt that these were the true Gaels, still in touch with the language and traditions of their Celtic past.
It was during this same year, 1915 that Sean Keating began work of one of his most significant early works, Men of the West. The painting illustrates three men dressed in Aran clothing, baggy woollen trousers and waistcoats with the colourful crios belt. Keating himself features on the left of the scene. His brother Joe Hannan Keating is painted twice in the work, once in the middle in profile and again on the right with his back turned. Joe was a member of the Irish Volunteers and possibly of the IRB. His face is partially obscured to conceal his identity as Joe was more politically active that his artist brother. Joe is portrayed holding a rifle while the artist depicts himself in the role of idealist, with the tricolour resting on his right shoulder. Keating’s choice of model in his brother and his role as a nationalist separatist contributes to the insurgent flavour of the work.
Although the reference to Aran stands, the title Men of the West harks also to Ireland’s contribution to the American Civil War and the men in the painting bear a resemblance to the cowboys from America’s Wild West. The painting speaks of the perceived need for violence with the men standing as revolutionary icons, unafraid to fight. Indeed their iconic status was potent as Keating produced limited edition prints of the work in 1919 in order to raise money for families affected by the political struggle. Within a year the authorities considered the distribution of the poster dissident and destroyed any remaining copies, thus bolstering its infamy.