Martin Archer Shee
Irish Portrait Artist, President Royal Academy, 18th/19th Century, Biography and Paintings.

Belisarius, Royal Academy Of Arts
Collection (1809).
By Martin Archer Shea. One of the
great Irish Artists of the 19th Century.

Martin Shee (1769–1850)

One of the most celebrated Irish portrait artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Martin Archer Shee was born in Dublin into a poor family, originally from Mayo and Kilkenny. Following the death of his mother when he was two, he was brought up by her sister in Bray.

Receiving a good early education in Dublin, Shee's passion for art was triggered after he copied the biblical images on some Dutch fireplace tiles which he had spotted during a visit to a friend's house. These impressive drawings, done entirely from memory, persuaded his family to allow him to train as an artist, and in 1781 he duly enrolled in the Royal Dublin Society's schools. Here he studied drawing and painting under Francis Robert West, and won almost all the art competitions he entered, including landscape drawing and portrait painting.

Determined to become independent, Shee left home and launched himself as a portraitist, painting largely in pastels. Although fortunate enough to attract reliable local clients, Shee was encouraged to travel to London, which he did in 1788, armed with introductions to the London-based Cork artist James Barry (1741-1806) and the eminent English portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Neither contact proved fruitful, and Shee - much to his chagrin - was advised to enrol in the Royal Academy schools, and take up oils.

Complying with both suggestions, Shee soon became known as a promising young portraitist. In 1791, four of his new works were accepted into the Royal Academy exhibition: in 1792, seven were exhibited. These and other portraits completed over the next 2-3 years established Shee's reputation. Within the decade, he was receiving commissions from within the highest ranks of society, and in 1800 was elected a full Academician. He reached the summit of his profession in 1830, when he was elected President of the Royal Academy, following the death of the stylish and haughty portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). See English Figurative Painting 19th century.

A gradual decline in his health during his 70s, exacerbated by the death of his wife in 1846, led to his death in 1850 at the ripe old age of 80. Although Shee achieved considerable fame within artistic circles during his lifetime, his portraiture is regarded as solid and stylish, rather than inspired. Now viewed as one of the more iinfluential Irish artists of the 19th Century, he excelled in portraying his sitters in a pleasing, refined manner, always at ease and exuding a warm glow, but his individual interpretation was weak as he rarely managed to convey any depth of individual character or emotion. An Irish Rembrandt he was not.

• For the development of Irish portraiture, see History of Irish Art.
• For more about fine arts in Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more information about Irish painters, see: Homepage.

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