Seán Keating, Irish romantic-realist painter who painted some iconic images of the Irish War of Independence and of the early industrialization of Ireland, is born in Limerick, County Limerick on September 28, 1889.
Keating studies drawing at the Limerick Technical School before a scholarship arranged by William Orpen allows him to go study at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin at the age of twenty. Over the next few years, he spends two weeks or so during the late summer on the Aran Islands and his many portraits of island people depict them as rugged heroic figures.
In 1914 he wins the RDS Taylor award with a painting titled The Reconciliation. The prize includes £50.00 which allows him to go to London to work as Orpen’s studio assistant in 1915. In late 1915 or early 1916, he returns to Ireland where he documents the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War. Examples include Men of the South (1921–22) which shows a group of Irish Republican Army (IRA) men ready to ambush a military vehicle and An Allegory (first exhibited in 1924), in which the two opposing sides in the Irish Civil War are seen to bury the tri-colour covered coffin amid the roots of an ancient tree. The painting includes a self-portrait of the artist.
Keating is elected an Associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in 1918, and a full member in 1923. One of the cardinal achievements of the Irish Free State in the 1920s is the building, in partnership with Siemens, of a hydro-electric power generator at Ardnacrusha, near Limerick. Between 1926 and 1927, at his own volition, he produces a considerable number of paintings related to this scheme. He exhibits several examples of the paintings in the RHA exhibitions in 1927 and 1928. Most of the paintings are now in the collection of ESB Group.
In 1936 group of prominent Limerick politicians, artists and patrons establish the first Limerick City Collection of Art from various donations and bequests. Keating is part of this artist-led initiative to form a municipal art gallery in Limerick similar to those already in Dublin and Cork. The collection is formed primarily out of donations and bequests. As a pivotal member of the committee, Keating himself donates many works to the collection which is first exhibited as a municipal collection in the Savoy Cinema, Limerick City on November 23, 1937. It is not until 1948 that an extension to the rear of Limerick Free Library and Museum becomes the home to the City Collection as the Limerick Free Art Gallery. In 1985 the Library and Museum are transferred to larger buildings.
In 1939 Keating is commissioned to paint a mural for the Irish pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. He is President of the RHA from 1950 to 1962, and shows at the annual exhibition for 61 years from 1914. Although he is an intellectual painter in the sense that he consciously sets out to explore the visual identity of the Irish nation, and his paintings show a very idealised realism, he fears that the modern movement will bring back a decline in artistic standards. Throughout his career, he exhibits nearly 300 works at the RHA and also shows at the Oireachtas.
Seán Keating dies on December 21, 1977 at the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin and is buried at Cruagh Cemetery, Rathfarnham. The 1978 RHA Exhibition features a small memorial collection of his work.
Posthumous exhibitions of his work are mounted by The Grafton Gallery, Dublin (1986) and the Electricity Supply Board (1987). Sean Keating – The Pilgrim Soul, a documentary presented and written by his son Justin Keating, airs on RTÉ in 1996.
(Pictured: Photograph of Keating’s “An Allegory” painted between 1922 and 1924. The painting represents Keating’s own disillusionment and loss of idealism resulting from the outbreak of the Irish Civil War. The only figure of the group addressing the observer is a self-portrait of the artist.)