Grandniece of Irish artist John Mulvany speaks at Great Hunger Museum
The adventurous life of artist John Mulvany was on display Thursday, Sept. 20, when Anne Weber, Mulvany’s grandniece, presented his life’s work at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Hamden.
Weber spoke with pride about the ups and downs of Mulvany’s life to a crowd of approximately 30 people – a life that she says “speaks to the survival of the Irish.”
Senior health science major Emily Alderman used to lived next to the Hunger Museum and decided to check out the event.
“I was intrigued to hear about John Mulvany’s life. I had never heard of him before, but after living in Whitney Village and driving by the Great Hunger Museum every day, I always wanted to check it out,” Alderman said. “I’m happy I came to the presentation.”
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University is home to the world’s largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials relating to the Irish Famine. It is the only museum in the world dedicated to Ireland’s Great Hunger.
Born in 1839 in County Meath, Ireland, Mulvany lived a life of struggle. His mother was widowed and he grew up with his brothers during Ireland’s darkest days. His parents suffered greatly under English landlords, instilling his deep nationalist feelings.
When his mother remarried a man with children, Mulvany realized he would not inherit any land. Then he made the trek to America with his brother.
Mulvany spent some time at the National Academy of Design in New York when he arrived before taking to portrait painting and becoming a sketch artist during the Civil War. Mulvany is praised for the realism in his pieces.
In Ireland, Mulvany is known for his painting, The Battle of Aughrim, painted in 1885 and exhibited in Dublin in 2010. Weber called the painting a “rallying call for Irish nationalists.” He also painted the first large image of General Custer’s defeat by the Oglala Sioux Indians at Little Big Horn in 1876. The painting, Custer’s Last Rally, was finished in 1881.
Throughout his career, Mulvany spent much time in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and throughout the United States. Previously, he had studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Munich.
However, in 1871, a devastating fire in Chicago wiped out all of Mulvany’s sketches and artwork. He depended on the kindness of his brother with whom he lived while he worked on rebuilding his career. Mulvany was able to get back on his feet in 1876 when his painting, Preliminary Trial of a Horse Thief, sold for $5,000–equivalent to over $92,000 in today’s economy, according to Weber.
Mulvany was also a lifelong member of Clan na Gael, an Irish secret society whose aim was Irish freedom from England. Weber said he narrowly escaped imprisonment by English authorities while researching uniforms for his Aughrim painting at the Tower of London. Mulvany was warned to leave before the tower was bombed by the Fenian dynamite campaign, orchestrated by Irish republicans against the British Empire.
Custer’s Last Rally spent 17 years on display from coast to coast before selling for $25,000. H.J. Heinz took ownership in 1898 of Mulvany’s building and painting, which meant he could no longer profit from prints or showings.
Mulvany convinced Heinz to commission him to duplicate the painting, which he spent his last years creating. The original Custer painting sold for $3 million last year.
Of all the mysteries surrounding Mulvany’s life, one of the biggest questions remaining is his drowning death. In May of 1906, Mulvany was found floating in the East River in New York. His death was declared a suicide by the press, however Mulvany battled throat cancer and alcoholism in his final years.
Mulvany’s 1876 award-winning painting Preliminary Trial of a Horse Thief is part of the museum’s current exhibition, “Making America: The Irish in the Civil War Era,” highlighting the role the Irish played in America’s struggle to define itself as a nation.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, located at 3011 Whitney Avenue, is open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays, 1-5 p.m.