His early education is of the plainest kind, but he is eager for culture, fond of reading, and anxious to become an artist. He later studies at the Cork School of Art.
Maclise exhibits for the first time at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1829. Gradually he begins to confine himself more exclusively to subject and historical pictures, varied occasionally by portraits – such as those of Lord Campbell, novelist Letitia Landon, Charles Dickens, and other of his literary friends. In 1833, he exhibits two pictures which greatly increase his reputation and, in 1835, the Chivalric Vow of the Ladies and the Peacock procure his election as associate of the Academy, of which he becomes full member in 1840. The years that follow are occupied with a long series of figure pictures, deriving their subjects from history and tradition and from the works of William Shakespeare, Oliver Goldsmith, and Alain-René Lesage.
Maclise also designs illustrations for several of Dickens’s Christmas books and other works. Between the years 1830 and 1836 he contributes to Fraser’s Magazine, under the pseudonym of Alfred Croquis, a remarkable series of portraits of the literary and other celebrities of the time – character studies, etched or lithographed in outline, and touched more or less with the emphasis of the caricaturist, which are afterwards published as the Maclise Portrait Gallery (1871). During the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament in London in 1834–1850 by Charles Barry, Maclise is commissioned in 1846 to paint murals in the House of Lords on such subjects as Justice and Chivalry.
In 1858, Maclise commences one of the two great monumental works of his life, The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher, on the walls of the Palace of Westminster. It is begun in fresco, a process which proves unmanageable. The artist wishes to resign the task, but, encouraged by Prince Albert, he studies in Berlin the new method of water-glass painting, and carries out the subject and its companion, The Death of Nelson, in that medium, completing the latter painting in 1864.
Maclise’s vast painting of The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854) hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. It portrays the marriage of the main Norman conqueror of Ireland “Strongbow” to the daughter of his Gaelic ally. By the grand staircase of Halifax Town Hall, which is completed in 1863, there is a wall painting by Maclise.
The intense application which he gives to these great historic works, and various circumstances connected with the commission, has a serious effect on Maclise’s health. He begins to shun the company in which he formerly delighted, his old buoyancy of spirits is gone, and in 1865, when the presidency of the Royal Academy is offered to him he declines the honour. He dies of acute pneumonia on April 25, 1870 at his home 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London.
(Pictured lower right: The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife)