Personal reflections on Louis le Brocquy – man and artist

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I only met Louis le Brocquy three or four times. His PR machine successfully managed to weave a web of mystique around him but any time I engaged him he was charming and very amenable. He was the closest person I encountered on this island as a French/Irish hybrid. That is not a criticism. He came across as a consummate European and that is fine by me.

I do recall talking to Mr le Brocquy about his portrait of Bono which hangs in the National Gallery. Somebody told me the U2 singer didn’t really like the painting. That is not unusual for a subject. Basil Blackshaw did a portrait of myself. It is most unflattering but what a painting. No compromise.

I really like Bono’s portrait. When I saw it for the first time I was struck by one feature immediately, a feeling that I was looking at a multiple of images. I interpreted that as Le Brocquy’s acknowledgement of the many sides to Bono. There was a manifest vibrancy in the work. Critically, the Bono portrait was not that well received. Was that because of Le Brocquy’s integrity in interpreting the sitter? He didn’t lean on the rock singer’s readily identifiable pop prop of dark glasses and shock of black hair.



Le Brocquy gave us the ‘otherness’ of Bono. I had the good fortune to discuss the portrait with him. He explained, without pomp or ceremony, why he treated the portrait accordingly: he told me he was at one of U2’s concerts and was so struck by a young man standing in front of him singing his heart out. He said it seemed to him that there was a direct connection between him and Bono. He said it was as if there were currents passing between them. He told me that is what he was trying to achieve in the painting.

One spoke, in close to hushed tones, or reverentially about Le Brocquy. To some in the Dublin art world the Kenilworth born painter had assumed a deity status. This was a lot of nonsense.

He was a wonderful draughtsman. That is not in dispute. He was truly European and under the influence of other European thinkers, he preoccupied himself with ‘la condition humaine’ – man’s fate – in a post war sense where one felt ‘isolated.’ This philosophy was assumed by many writers and painters of the post war era, among them Malraux, Sartre, Beckett, Bacon etc.

One has to say Le Brocquy must have ploughed a lonely furrow for many years artistically. That to which he dedicated much of his painting life was not flavour of the month.

The big question is: how original was he? What has he contributed to art? Did he turn a page in Irish or European art? He knew and mingled with Bacon and Freud according to received information – that did not make him a Bacon or a Freud.

Le Brocquy quite often, like many other painters burgled the world bank of art. This was very evident when in 1954 he painted ‘Children in a Wood,’ inspired by a painting by the 17th-Century Dutch artist Nicolaes Maes.

In 1962 he painted another work of children, ‘Procession with Lilies.’ These two images inspired a further series of work in the 1980s and 1990s. These were more uplifting and lyrical than his earlier isolated figures.

Le Brocquy, like Northern painter Colin Middleton was incapable of shoddy or less than excellent draughtsmanship – but that didn’t make him a towering artist. His obsession with ‘heads’ for years, even farcically journeying back all those centuries to meet an elusive guy called William Shakespeare may have diminished his standing.

‘Procession with Lilies,’ ‘Fantail Pigeons’ and some of his fruit paintings are simply divine but Le Brocquy didn’t leave behind him a body of work sought by the world’s leading museums.



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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Come on, say it like it is: the le Brocquy heads must be among the most pretentious “portraits” I have ever seen; they are not interesting or good art and unfortunately, if you live in Dublin, they are everywhere. As for those who keep insisting he ranks alongside Bacon and Freud (even his supporters use the inflated Celtic Tiger prices for this ridiculous assertion) you are making an ass of yourselves –  it does le Brocquy no favours either. There are better Irish artists and insisting le Brocquy is as great -and it is only the Irish who think this – an artist as Freud and Bacon turns the whole Irish art world into a figure of ridicule.

  2. Rare to see somebody in the media even vaguely critical of an Irish painter but I would go further and say that the value of much of the ‘art’ of le Brocquy is an illusion created by those with a vested interest. The Fine Art Salerooms, and their advertising budgets have long been a target for the Irish broadsheets in much the same way as the property auctioneers. Any criticism of works by various, high value, artists is lost in the gushing adulation that greets the latest announcement of record prices achieved at auction. However, it has to be said that at least le Brocquy had some talent unlike the great dauber – Jack B Yeats – whose hyped-up work sells for outrageous sums.