Hi Reader! My updated and expanded iconography of George Moore lists more than 160 images of the peculiar man in various media: oil, watercolor, pastel, crayon, charcoal, ink, graphite, etching, bronze, doll, photogravure, photograph, lithograph, newsprint.
Have I left something out? Certainly, but you get the idea. There are lots of portraits, made in lots of different ways, by lots of artists. Which begs the question: Why?
George Moore was famous for much of his life, but he wasn’t a celebrity. Fans didn’t hang his picture on the wall or paste it into a scrapbook. (Ahem, full disclosure: four framed pictures of George Moore are hanging on my walls, and hundreds of snaps are cached in my archival scrapbooks. That’s an anomaly.)
Moore was not a show-biz celebrity, nor was he beautiful or handsome or even cute. Setting aside his literary legacy, it’s hard to see what attracted artists to him. The French impressionist Edouard Manet rendered Moore as a “drowned fish.” The Victorian sexologist Havelock Ellis said he closely resembled an Egyptian cat mummy in the British Museum. The cosmopolitan post-impressionist Walter Sickert figured him as an “intoxicated mummy.”
Ergo: artists did not put this strange-looking individual on a pedestal. And yet they did!
No art historian has explained why artists clung to Moore, and that’s too bad. When one of our great museums gets around to mounting an exhibition of George Moore portraits, a curator will perhaps tell us why there are so many.
If I remember correctly my hurried, naive monograph about George Moore and art (in the Irish Arts Review of 1985) took his images for granted. I merely cataloged them (overlooking much). I didn’t ask why there were a lot. I didn’t speculate about their meaning and value for people today (including myself). This was an oversight that I’ll now start to repair.
Why did artists depict George Moore with uncommon persistence? One answer was given by Max Beerbohm, the esteemed English man of letters and artist who drew Moore again and again, and yet again. Max wrote in The Atlantic Magazine (Boston) of December 1950:
When, where, did I first see my friend George Moore? It is odd that I do not remember my first sight of him. For I am sure there never was in heaven or on earth any one at all like him. It is conceivable that in the waters that are under the earth there may, vaguely luminous, be similar forms, and — stay, it isn’t odd, after all, this lapse of my memory. It is explained by that quality of luminous vagueness which Moore’s presence always had. There always was an illusory look about him the diaphanous, vaporous, wan look of an illusion conjured up for us, perhaps by means of mirrors and by a dishonourable spiritualist. There was something blurred about him: his outlines seemed to merge into the air around him. … Mentally, as well as physically, he was unique. He was always the same, and yet always new. … The outer and inner demeanour of almost every man is variable, changing with the circumstances he is in and the sort of people who are about him. Except Oscar Wilde, I never knew a man whose tone of mind and mode of expression, everywhere, and with every one, were so invariable as Moore’s.
Invariable and yet always new! Taking Max’s word as gospel truth (the right and proper thing to do), I would argue that the reason artists gravitated to George Moore is comparable to why the literary avant garde gravitated to William Butler Yeats. Each man was charismatic, evidently given to exuding a sort of spiritual and ethereal air that fascinated those who met them. Each was present in the human moment while navigating a cosmic arc.
And that basically is why there are lots of images of George Moore, made in lots of different ways, by lots of artists. In person he was unique, authentic, “fantastic,” and entirely the real deal.
Éirinn go Brách
Normally I devote this blog to George Moore, but want to make an exception to tout Fintan O’Toole’s “personal history of modern Ireland,” a weighty book named We Don’t Know Ourselves (2021).
O’Toole writes with refreshing candor, clarity, vigor, and without a trace of sentimentality that often colors recollections of Ireland. He being about my age (a wee bit younger), his book strikes me as a testament — as in eyewitness testimony — of the Ireland that I experienced starting as a student.
Not being Irish, nor having any Irish connections, Celtic proclivities aren’t baked into my DNA as they are for members of the tribe and diaspora. I went there for the first time in 1976, on a ferry from Holyhead in Wales, knowing a little about the Moores of Moore Hall but nothing about their country. Within hours of my arrival to conduct research, I was fairly confused by everything. The environment seemed superficially familiar and profoundly strange, weird, unbelievable.
My sensations of cognitive dissonance summed up to an answer I kept getting in response to questions I asked, even the simplest, most basic questions; an answer that epitomized my uniquely Irish experience:
“It is and it isn’t.”
Any closed-ended question you can think of, that in other places gets a yes or a no or a maybe, in Ireland got all three at the same time: “It is and it isn’t.”
Fintan O’Toole never utters that phrase in his awesome book, but he explains what it means and why it makes sense. He shows how Irish culture is rarely what it seems and is often what it tries to hide. He has written, far and away, the best book about Ireland I have read.
I hope We Don’t Know Ourselves inspires an American memoirist to write likewise about the United States. It’s dreadfully apparent these days that we too don’t know ourselves, for similar or analogous reasons.
By the way, I emailed Fintan O’Toole to ask his opinion of another great Irish memoirist, the author of Hail and Farewell. I’ll let you know if he answers.
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