Perhaps the closest approximation of an "official artist" that Ireland has produced, Paul Henry (Belfast, 1876 – Wicklow, 1958) took the by-then well-trodden path to the Paris art academies in September 1898 after receiving some money from a distant cousin. Having come into increasing conflict with his strict Baptist family, Henry wrote that he “left Belfast with only a scant handful of regrets”.
When Henry enrolled at the Académie Julian at 31, rue Dragon (6th arrondissement), he gave two addresses for himself in Paris. One was at the Hôtel de la Haute-Loire at 203, boulevard Raspail (14th arrondissement) where he met a certain W.B. Yeats .John Millington Synge was another Paris contemporary that Henry briefly met. Within a short time, Henry and a fellow student managed to find a "ramshackle, and out-at-elbows, but adorable studio" in a now-demolished building in the rue de la Grande Chaumière (6th arrondissement)—a street more redolent of art and artists. Two important art academies were situated in the rue de la Grande Chaumière—the Académie Colarossi and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière—while at number 8 of this same little side street in Montparnasse, Amadeo Modigliani and Paul Gauguin had their studio. There was a well in the garden, from whence Henry drew water, and the toilets, which were in the courtyard, were “appalling”. Other compatriots that Henry met were Constance Goore-Booth (Countess Markiewicz), who studied at the Académie Julian at the same time as Henry and was known as 'The Gore-Booth', as well as Edith Somerville and Violet Martin ("Somerville and Ross").
Henry threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies at the Académie Julian—a strange place, for “it was not a school with regular classes and teachers, it granted no degrees, there were no prizes. I knew nothing, and never took the trouble to inquire, about its finances.....A rum little bird came round periodically and collected our fees. We, of course, hated the sight of him, and I’m afraid we tormented him horribly, bug that was the extent of our business relations with the management. As long as you paid up and behaved yourselves properly and did not steal the easels, you were free as the pigeons that haunted the courtyards.”
During his two-year stay in France, Henry also rented a cottage at St-Léger-en-Yvelines in the forest of Rambouillet, south-west of Paris. It was there that he had a chance meeting with a charcoal burner who sold his production to artists. From a chance meeting with one of them, he developed a love of charcoal. “The vine branches from which it was made brought me nearer to the spirit of France in some almost mystical way.”
While studying at the Académie Julian, Henry also enrolled in James Whistler’s newly-established Académie Carmen at 6, passage Stanislas (now called rue Jules-Chaplain, 6th arrondissement). While Whistler's studio ultimately failed, Henry (and possibly Grace) may have followed courses at the Académie Carmen given by the great Czech illustrator, Alphonse Mucha. The latter was a patient teacher. Whistler, by contrast, made only cursory visits. Henry says “he went around the studio as quickly as he could, and you felt that as the door closed behind him, he said with relief, ‘Thank God that’s over’.”
However, by the time he met Grace Mitchell in 1900, Henry was expressing misgivings about his art school training (“I have seen enough of the results of such teaching in the schools to realise that it was a blind alley”) and was being stung financially by important changes such as the “American invasion of Paris”, which was pushing up the cost of studios. Henry took a jaundiced view of the new American arrivals “A great number of them", he surmised, "were not artists at all but were living what they would have called ‘la vie de Bohème’'." With funds running low and conscious of the need to earn a living for himself Henry packed his bags and left Paris for London on a dismal day in late December 1900.
As the years went by, Henry felt some nostalgia for his Paris years, but much less for its artistic fads and art schools. "After a few months in Paris, I began to discard what I had been taught in the schools there," he wrote. In the 1920s, he rejected a suggestion from his old pal, Arthur Power, to visit Paris again to see what the Dadaists, Surrealists and others were up to. "Sure, what would I get out of it?", he is said to have replied.
An Irish Portrait (1940)
Paul Henry (2000)
“Paul Henry: An Irish Portrait”, Brian Kennedy, in Irish Arts Review Yearbook, 1889/1990