March 20 is the birthday of Irish painter John Lavery, who was born in Belfast on this day in 1856. Although highly regarded in his day, he seems to have been forgotten in ours, which is a shame.
A society painter whose portraits rivaled those of John Singer Sargent and a friend of James McNeill Whistler, Lavery also served as a war artist during World War I, despite bouts of ill health and the injuries he suffered in an automobile accident during the course a Zeppelin raid. And he excelled as an interpreter of Morocco, which he visited for the first time in 1891.
Lavery was taken with the region’s broad vistas and the quality of its light, and a number of works he painted on that first visit were exhibited later in the year at Goupil Gallery in London, along with examples on more familiar themes.
The artist was to return to Morocco every winter over the following years, with a break during World War I, and in time he even bought a residence with a hillside garden—Dar el Midfah—west of the Kasbah in Tangier, the famous “white city” perched at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. Lavery also set up a hilltop studio (whose entryway you see above) that provided him with an unparalleled view of the coast of southern Spain.
Lavery’s 1904 and 1908 exhibitions, the former at London’s Leicester Galleries and the latter at Goupil, emphasized Morocco even more, and included several views (an example of which you see above) over Tangier painted from the roof of the city’s Hotel Continental. Lavery is typically grouped with other European artists who produced paintings of North Africa and the Near East, but his quick, open brushwork sets him apart, and suggests that he was painting en plein air—outdoors—rather than working in his studio.
An interesting footnote to Lavery’s career involves his friendship with Scottish writer Robert Cunninghame Graham, who wrote an introduction to a catalogue issued in connection with Lavery’s Leicester Galleries exhibition. Cunninghame Graham is remembered in his own right as the author of a classic 1898 Moroccan travel account, Mogreb-El-Acksa.
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