<< YCBA Home Yale Center for British Art Yale Center for British Art << YCBA Home

YCBA Collections Search

IIIF Actions
Ford Madox Brown, 1821–1893

The Irish Girl

Materials & Techniques:
Oil on canvas laid on board
11 1/4 x 10 7/8 inches (28.6 x 27.6 cm), Frame: 22 1/2 × 21 1/2 inches (57.2 × 54.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
blue | child | cornflowers | flower (plant) | girl | Irish | paisley | pattern | portrait | red | shawl | street vendor
On view at the Yale University Art Gallery
IIIF Manifest:

Ford Madox Brown was an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites though never a full member of the Brotherhood. This small picture of an Irish girl was painted for T. E. Plint, a stockbroker from Leeds and a patron of Pre-Raphaelite artists. The model was an Irish orange seller whom Brown had discovered while looking for models for his monumental social realist painting Work (Manchester City Art Gallery, completed 1863), which was commissioned by Plint but finished only after his death. The Irish Girl reflects a trend among collectors in the latter half of the nineteenth century for small “cabinet pictures,” which were focused studies (suitable for domestic interiors) of individual women or children. Here, the artist was more concerned with the painting’s formal properties than with conveying a story or message. The central blue cornflower, kimono, and flat red background all emphasize formal effects that would later become associated with aestheticism.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016

Ford Madox Brown found the model for this painting while searching for subjects to use in his epic painting Work (1852–65; Manchester City Art Galleries), a celebrated portrayal of the Victorian social system. An illustration of the nobility of work and the iniquity of unemployment, Work was a moral picture made in the vein of William Hogarth; several figures in Work were street sellers, their idle and lazy conduct serving as foil to the moral character of their laboring counterparts. Painted five years earlier, The Irish Girl portrays a flower girl, who would have been considered one of the lowest members of society because she was never taught a productive form of work.
Brown painted in a style closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (prb), whose membership included Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriele Rossetti. The prb insisted on a return to the brilliant colors and exquisite, precise detail they felt was characteristic of art created before the time of the Renaissance painter Raphael (1483–1520). They often combined a realistic style with highly magical, historic, or symbolic subjects. The girl in this painting has an ethereal, enigmatic quality that transcends her minutely detailed features.

Gallery label for Figuring Women - The Female in Modern British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-03-28 - 2008-06-08)

The model for this picture was an orange seller whom Brown found while scouting for models for his epic painting Work, which he began in 1852 and completed between 1856 and 1863 (Manchester Art Gallery, UK). Among the many figures in that modern allegory of labor are some Irish vagrants, who, in the painting's moral scheme, are meant to symbolize the corrosive idleness that was thought to result from unemployment. The cornflower held by the young girl in this picture is in keeping with the message of the larger painting: one of the low-liest street sellers in Victorian London was the flower girl. Her disreputable status stood in marked contrast to the fine clothes and angelic countenance of her companion, an English boy (painted after Brown's own son Oliver), who was the subject of a pendant painting in the same year (Manchester Art Gallery, UK). Brown's attention to the physical characteristics of his subject and his careful specification of her ethnicity were in keeping with contemporary scientific interest in systems of anthropological and physiognomical classification.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2008
From the later 1850s onward there was a fashion among more advanced British artists, led by the Pre-Raphaelite painters John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for painting simple, small-scale studies or "cabinet pictures" of the heads of women and children. Though Pre-Raphaelite in their attention to detail and to the particulars of the model's features and skin tones, these were essentially decorative in conception-the head is generally set against a flat background, and the colors of clothing and props carefully harmonized-with no clear narrative, moral, or documentary purpose. As such, they played an important part in the beginnings of the Aesthetic Movement.

The model for The Irish Girl, Ford Madox Brown's most beautiful contribution to the genre, was an orange-seller whom he found while scouting for models for an altogether different kind of painting, his grand, didactic magnum opus, Work (begun 1852, completed 1856-63; Manchester City Art Gallery). Among the many figures in this modern allegory of labor in its various forms, inspired by the gospel of work laid down by the social critic Thomas Carlyle, are some Irish vagrants. These were a common sight in England, especially since the Irish Famine of the 1840s, and in the moral scheme of Brown's painting symbolize the evil of unemployment, resulting from idleness and bad management on the part of the more privileged members of society. Presumably Brown considered using the girl shown here for a young vagrant but dropped the idea and painted her alone instead. In The Irish Girl she appears neither as a vagrant nor as an orange-seller, but as another of the lowliest kinds of street vendor, a flower girl.

The work was painted as a pendant to a slightly larger study showing a boy of about the same age, also in full face: The English Boy (1860; Manchester City Art Gallery). The model for this was the artist's own son Oliver, then five years old. The natural way to hang the two works together would be with the girl to the left, which would create the impression that she was looking sideways at the boy. He, by contrast, stares straight out at the viewer. Whereas she is clearly poor, he is identified by his dress as comfortably-off, a child of the middle class. Whereas she holds a cornflower, his "attribute" is a whipping top: she is associated with nature, he with the man-made; she is at work while he is at play. Brown enjoyed setting up such contrasts and Work is full of them-as for instance, in the confrontation between a rough mongrel and a refined-looking whippet in the foreground.

Both pictures were painted at Brown's home in Kentish Town, north London, as he painstakingly brought Work toward completion. They were bought from him by the patron who, four years earlier, had undertaken to buy Work, Thomas Plint of Leeds. A young stockbroker, evangelical churchman, and philanthropist, Plint had built up a spectacular Pre-Raphaelite collection. For Work he had pledged 400 guineas; for The Irish Girl he paid forty.

The Liverpool Academy, where the painting was first exhibited in 1860, was a favorite forum of the Pre-Raphaelites and associates of the group including Brown. By showing their works there and occasionally winning the annual prizes-Brown had won two-they could attract the wealthy northern collectors who accounted for such an important part of their patronage. In 1861 Brown showed The Irish Girl again, this time at the Hogarth Club in London. The Hogarth was a short-lived, private exhibiting society founded by Brown, his friend Rossetti, and other avant-garde artists who found themselves at odds with the Royal Academy. They chose the name in honor of William Hogarth, "the stalwart founder of Modern English art." Brown deeply admired Hogarth and, as the vivid combination of realism, satire, and moralizing in Work demonstrates, his approach to the depiction of modern life was founded on Hogarthian principles. Perhaps even his idea of contrasting the Irish girl and the English boy came from Hogarth's opposition of types such as the apprentices in his Industry and Idleness series.

Malcolm Warner

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 158, no. 64, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

YUAG European Galleries (Yale University Art Gallery, 2023-12-01 - 2025-01-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

In a New Light: Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art (Yale University Art Gallery, 2023-03-24 - 2023-12-03) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Ford Madox Brown (Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, 2012-02-25 - 2012-06-03) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Ford Madox Brown (Manchester City Galleries, 2011-09-24 - 2012-01-29) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Figuring Women - The Female in Modern British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-03-28 - 2008-06-08) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Conquering England - Ireland in Victorian London (National Portrait Gallery, 2005-03-09 - 2005-06-26) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Kenneth Bendiner, The art of Ford Madox Brown, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1998, pp. 69, 70, 112, 119, 139, col. pl. VII, fig. 39, NJ18 B8307 B45 19987 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Mary Bennett, Ford Madox Brown : a catalogue raisonne´, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2010, v.ol 1, pp. 81, 194, 195, 200, 201; v.ol 2, p. 559, 572, 573, A74, A74, NJ18.B8307 A12 B45 2010 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Deborah Cherry, The Hogarth Club, 1851-1861, Burlington Magazine, v. 122, no. 925, April, 1980, pp. 239, 242,243, fig. 17, N1 B87 122:1 OVERSIZE [ORBIS]

Christie's sale catalogue : Catalogue of the Highly Important Collection of English Pictures and Drawings formed by that distinguished Patron of Art, Thomas E. Plint, Esq. : 7-8 March 1862, Christie's, London, March 7-8, 1862, p. 25, lot. no. 205, Available Online : Art Sales Catalogues [ORBIS]

Fintan Cullen, Conquering England, Ireland in Victorian London , National Portrait Gallery, London, 2005, pp. 61, 72, DA125.I7 [ORBIS]

Fintan Cullen, Visual Politics : the Representation of Ireland 1750-1930, , Cork University Press, Cork [Ireland], 1997, pp. 139-40, fig. 61, N6782 C85 1997 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Figuring women, the female in modern British art. , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2008, p. 23, V 1925 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Ford M. Hueffer, Ford Madox Brown : a record of his Life and Work, , Green Longmans, London New York, 1896, pp. 168, 197, 439, NJ18 B8307 A12 1896 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden : Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 158, no. 64, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Teresa Newman, Ford Madox Brown, and the Pre-Raphaelite circle , Chatto & Windus, London, 1991, pp. 140-41, 143, NJ18 B8307 N48 1991 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 1, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Sotheby's sale catalogue : Nineteenth Century European Paintings Drawings and Sculpture : 21 June 1988, Sotheby's, London, June 21, 1988, pp. 66-67, Lot 38, Auction Catalogues (YCBA) Unboud Catalogue

Julian Treuherz, Ford Madox Brown, Pre-Raphaelite pioneer , Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, London : Philip Wilson Publishers in association with Manchester Art Gallery, 2011, pp. 63, 235, 242-43, fig. 91, NJ18.B8307 T74 2011 (LC) Oversize [ORBIS]

Walker Art Gallery, Ford Madox Brown, 1821-1893., Exhibition organized by the Walker Art Gallery. , Liverpool, 1964, p. 24, no. 38, NJ18 B8307 L58 (YCBA) [YCBA]

If you have information about this object that may be of assistance please contact us.