The Little Harvest, Mayo signed and dated 'N McGUINNESS/59' (lower left) oil on board 50.2 x 83.5 cm. (19 3/4 x 32 7/8 in.)
PROVENANCE: Sale; James Adam's in association with Bonhams; Dublin, 31 May 2006, lot 152, where purchased by the present owner
EXHIBITED: Belfast, Stranmillis Museum & Art Gallery, Norah McGuinness Exhibition, November-December 1959, no.20
The Little Harvest Mayo was loaned to the Stranmillis Museum and Art Gallery on the occasion of Norah McGuinness' exhibition there in November 1959. In his catalogue introduction Sean O'Faolain speaks of her "rebellious dark-blue-greens, these broodings in brown and burnt siena (sic), these gay contrasts of ochre, lemon, and cyclamen, these skies like greenly translucent seas." As he rightly points out, this is not a new development in Norah's palette; from her time in Paris colour was the foundation of her work.
More particularly, her exposure to the colours of India, which she visited in the 1930s, was to have a strong and long-lasting effect upon her work. Norah stayed in the university city of Nagpur, the geographical centre of the sub-continent, which is noted for two things, the distribution of the country's mail and the production of oranges. To this day the streets are littered with stalls displaying artfully arranged pyramids of the fruit. Named after the Sanskrit word narangah for the fruit, orange is considered a holy colour in India. Would it be too far-fetched to suppose that the prevalence of this colour was influential in making it one of Norah's signature colours later in her artistic career? In the Indian tradition colours are imbued with a definite character. Would Norah have been aware, for instance, that orange is the symbol of sexual feelings whilst green is used to convey love? Purple in the western tradition denotes nobility whilst in India it expresses despair; interestingly, Norah often used purple in her West of Ireland scenes. Given the frequency of invasion and bloodshed in Indian history, it is hardly suprising that the colour red, which indicates wrath and bravery, is used to excess. Often red is accompanied by yellow which denotes pleasantness. Saffron, that most elusive of spices requiring 170,000 crocus flowers to yield one kilo in weight, is, most aptly, used to convey prosperity and chivalry.
In this painting depicting an Irish harvest scene it seems to me that Norah brings all these properties into play. There is a sensuality and a fire about this painting, a sense of prosperity and well-being; men work alongside women, their skins toasted by the hot August sun. It might almost be an Indian scene; the figures are clothed in loose, brightly coloured fabrics, the woman's heavy hair pulled back in chignons. It is not just the hot colours which convey this sensuality; the serpentine composition snaking from the centre of the canvas with the road framing the scene as a woman walks languidly up and out to the right. The fieriness of the central image is cooled by the introduction of the greens and blues on the borders of the canvas. In the Indian tradition the five elements of nature are represented by defined colours: yellow for earth, white for water, black for air, red for fire and blue for space. More subtly, states of mind and states of development have their allotted colours: consciousness is clothed in yellow, motivation in red and inertia in blue; yellow represents the dawn and childhood, red indicates midday and youth and blue stands for evening and old age. Here the workers in the field, in the yellow and red centre of the painting, are young and vigourous, the older, more leisurely lady leaving the scene is walking away to the cooler green fields and ultimately to the blue of the evening sky and the shadows of the distant mountains. The flow of colours from yellow through red to blue is being used to delineate a lifetime in one moment. The Indian influence may not be restricted to her use of colour. Not too far distant from Nagpur are caves containing Buddhist murals dating from 200BC; could it be that Norah elected to use her flattened perspective and palette of earth colours after seeing these?
We are grateful to Síle Connaughton-Deeny for compiling, and James Adam's for their assistance, in this catalogue entry.