Purchased by South Tipperary County Council
Born and raised in Limerick, Sean Keating was the nearest to an ‘official artist’ in the Irish state for the first half of the twentieth century. He earned this reputation through his representations of republican and cultural nationalism and his celebration of the introduction of hydroelectricity to Ireland. Keating became an influential teacher at the NCA and, later, President of the RHA. He was, thus, a figure of considerable power in the artistic life of the state. Despite outspoken comments about governmental failures and attacks on Modernism in art, he received commissions for important portraits from Church and State, such as the portrait of President Cosgrave in 1923, and a state-commissioned mural cycle for the International Labour Offices in Geneva. The idea for this portrait of Dan Breen, a protagonist of the first armed action in the War of Independence at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary in January 1919 and later TD for Tipperary (1927–65) came from another former republican, Todd Andrews, in 1958, but it was commissioned by the O’Brien Family of Clonmel, who were supporters of Dan Breen. The painting was executed in Keating’s studio in the old College of Art premises adjoining Leinster House on Kildare Street, Dublin, and hence convenient for both men. Keating and Dan Breen shared republican sympathies and profound disillusionment with the Free State, but Keating turned increasingly to Socialism while Dan Breen served in various Fianna Fáil Governments and openly sympathized with Fascism. Despite their ideological differences, the two old men (Keating was 69 and Breen 64 when the work began) enjoyed the sessions it took for Keating to do pastel and chalk sketches before getting to work on the finished oil painting. Elderly and rheumatic, Keating found the richly-embossed wallpaper very time-consuming, but he did not allow this to interfere with his depiction of a larger than life character. The sitter is presented as a benign elder statesman rather than the violent political activist, hunger striker and ‘hard man’ that his autobiography, My Fight for Irish Freedom, (1924) proclaims him to be. The portrait was exhibited in the RHA in 1959 (no. 98) when it was marked ‘not for sale’, and in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in a retrospective of the artist’s work in 1963. It was purchased from the O’Brien Family by South Tipperary County Council.