Jellett, Mainie (1897–1944)

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Jellett, Mainie (1897–1944)

Irish artist. Born in Dublin, Ireland, on April 29, 1897; died of pancreatic cancer at St. Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, on February 16, 1944; eldest of four daughters of William Morgan Jellett and Janet (Stokes) Jellett; educated at home and subsequently studied art at Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, Westminster School of Art, and with André Lhote and Albert Gleizes in France.

Mainie Jellett was born in Dublin in 1897, the eldest of four daughters of William Morgan Jellett and Janet Stokes Jellett . She had her first painting lessons when she was 11 and attended classes given by Elizabeth Yeats , daughter of the artist J.B. Yeats and sister of the poet W.B. Yeats. Mainie also took classes with Sarah Cecilia Harrison and May Manning and visited France in 1911 and 1913. She studied for three years under William Orpen at the Dublin Metropolitan Art School and in January 1917 went to London to study with Walter Sickert at the Westminster Art School. In her essay "An Approach to Painting," she claimed that Sickert's influence, and especially his compositional techniques and use of line and realism, was the first of the three revolutions in her work, style and ideas.

It was while she was working with Sickert that she met Evie Hone who became a lifelong friend and colleague. Jellett and Hone visited Spain in 1920, and later that year they went to Paris to study with André Lhote and Albert Gleizes, the other two "revolutions" in Jellett's work. With Lhote, "I learned how to use natural forms as a starting point towards the pure creation of form for its own sake." Gleizes sent her right back to the beginning and gave her the "severest type of exercises in pure form and colour. … I now felt I had come to essentials and though the type of work I had embarked upon would mean years of misunderstanding and walls of prejudice to break through, yet I felt I was on the right track."

Jellett soon experienced this misunderstanding and prejudice when, on her return to Dublin, she exhibited some of her Cubist paintings in 1923 and 1924. Despite the hostile reaction from the more conservative sections of the Irish art world, she continued to exhibit regularly in Dublin and also in London and Paris. She was a founder member of the Abstraction-Création group, which led the European abstract movement in the 1930s. She could have made her career in London or Paris but preferred to stay in Ireland. Thanks to the force of her personality and through her incisive teaching, lectures and broadcasts, Jellett gradually spread the gospel of modernism and won acceptance for her work and the work of other modern artists. In 1930, she exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy, which was the bastion of conservatism. She also designed for the stage, particularly at the Edwards-MacLiammóir Gate Theater in Dublin. Major recognition for her work came in 1938–39 when the Irish government commissioned Jellett to decorate the Irish Pavilions at

the Glasgow Exhibition and at the New York World Fair.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, a number of foreign artists arrived in Ireland, including members of the London-based White Stag Group. Jellett helped many of these artists and in 1940 gave a series of lectures to members of the White Stag. Out of this came the idea for the 1943 Irish Exhibition of Living Art which became an annual event and would be a dominant influence in Irish art up to the 1970s. In 1942, Jellett had written despairingly about that year's Royal Hibernian Academy exhibition: "Every year I go … in a spirit of hopefulness expecting there may be some new young head pushing itself up through the miasma of vulgarity and self-satisfaction, which is the general impression I unfortunately register every year." Jellett was appointed the first chair of Living Art but missed the exhibition because of her deteriorating health. She died in February 1944. Elizabeth Bowen , who had known Jellett since they were children growing up in Dublin, wrote a moving tribute to her in The Bell (December 1944). "The greatness of Mainie Jellett was to be felt in many ways: but not least in her simplicity. She was not only easy but, which is rarer, easing to be with. She not only calmed one, but re-lit lamps which seemed to be going out. I felt very much her junior, in vision, in virtue, in experience of what is truly life."

In "An Approach to Painting" which was published the year before her death, Jellett summed up her views on the role of the artist in society. "The idea of an artist being a special person, an exotic flower set apart from other people is one of the errors resulting from the industrial revolution, and the fact of artists being pushed out of their lawful position in the life and society of the present day. … Their present enforced isolation from the majority is a very serious situation and I believe it is one of the many causes which has resulted in the present chaos we live in. The art of a nation is one of the ultimate facts by which its spiritual health is judged and appraised by posterity."


Arnold, Bruce. Mainie Jellett and the Modern Movement in Ireland. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Frost, Stella. A Tribute to Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett. Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1957.

Snoddy, Theo. Dictionary of Irish Artists: 20th Century. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1996.

Walker, Dorothy. Modern Art in Ireland. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1997.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick