Signed, bottom right Donated by Mr. Denis Gwynn, through the FNCI
Grace Henry née Emily Grace Mitchell, was born near Peterhead, Scotland, and educated in London and on the continent. She met the Irish painter, Paul Henry in 1900 at James McNeil Whistler’s painting school in Paris and they married three years later. They exhibited together between 1904 and 1926 in Dublin but the relationship did not last and Paul Henry fails to mention her in two separate memoirs. Grace lived with him on Achill from 1910–19 when she proved to be the more innovative artist of the two, but the Achill experience turned him into one of Ireland’s most popular artists of the twentieth century.Grace Henry’s early work was quiet in mood and tone, and includes a number of figure paintings, the best known of which is Girl in White (DCGHL) but following her visit to Achill she began to paint more lively canvases of peasant life, especially scenes at night, under moonlight. She was a founder member of the Dublin Society of Painters which sought wider exhibition opportunities for artists. In 1924–25 she returned to France and studied under the cubist Andre L’hote and from then on, she lived at various addresses in France and Italy but always sent work to Ireland for exhibition. Grace Henry was the only woman artist chosen by Victor Waddington in his seminal publication, 12 Artists from Ireland, 1940. Four years later she took part in the first Irish Exhibition of Living Art. The Return of the Potato Diggers is not dated but it has all the hallmarks of the paintings Grace Henry painted when she lived and worked on Achill Island between 1910 and 1919. Like some of her best work from that time, it is a nocturnal scene, suggesting that the three potato diggers, two young girls and an older woman, possibly their mother, returning home with bulging creels of potatoes on their donkeys, have been working long and late. To add to the realism of this picture of peasant hardship there is also a baby in the scene, but the return is joyful. They have food and the beaming smile of the younger girl cannot be restrained. Only the mother figure seems to hold back from her infectious gaiety.