Find, Learn, Price Art
Enjoy the comprehensive art database we've compiled since 1987
Membership Details
Images, sales charts, bios, signatures, 30 artist Alerts and more ...
Art auction records:  Millions of references for pricing research
Or, register for Free Alerts
To track 10 artists.

Already a member?  Sign in here

Daniel Macdonald

 (1821 - 1853)
Daniel Macdonald was active/lived in United Kingdom.  Daniel Macdonald is known for dramatic historical genre painting, sketches, illustrations.

Daniel Macdonald

Biography from the Archives of askART

The following exhibition review by Dan Barry, is from the "Art & Design" section of The New York Times, February 18, 2016. The exhibition was held at Ireland's Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

"The Artist Who Dared to Paint Ireland's Great Famine"

HAMDEN, Conn. — It is called An Gorta Mor, or the Great Hunger, an evocative term that still fails to convey the full horror of the Irish potato famine, perhaps the single worst catastrophe in 19th-century Europe. Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland lost more than a quarter of its population to starvation, disease and emigration, while its English overlords hemmed, hawed and, in at least one prominent case, cited God’s will as justification.

And yet there is just one painting known to exist that captured the famine as it was unfolding: An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of Their Store, which depicts a family peeling away the hay and earth protecting its “store” of harvested potatoes, only to find the dark of rot. The white-haired patriarch looks to the heavens; his black-shrouded wife stares at the betraying ground; the faces of the young adults and children around them convey the awful realization.

The painting, by the little-known Irish artist Daniel Macdonald, is notable on many levels, beginning with the time and place of its unveiling: at the British Institution in London in 1847, a famine year so bleak that it became known as “black ’47.” Instead of being offered another image of a sentimentalized Ireland, British patrons were confronted with an artistic rendering of the human misery caused in good part by the socioeconomic policies of their own country.

Macdonald is the intriguing subject of “In the Lion’s Den: Daniel Macdonald, Ireland and Empire,” an exhibition at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University. The show seeks to resurrect what museum officials see as an “undeservedly forgotten” artist and his daring, evocative work, especially Blight of Their Store, which the institution’s curator, Niamh O’Sullivan, described as “the only known painting that deals with the famine at the time of the famine.”

True, magazine illustrators provided a journalistic sense of the catastrophe. And more artists portrayed, say, the all-too-common byproduct of the potato blight — the eviction of Irish tenant farmers — but often did so from the safe distance of a London studio. Macdonald spent time in Ireland in 1847, and his subject is the thing itself, the simple, essential and now-corrupted potato.

“The painting is about foreboding,” said Luke Gibbons, a professor of Irish literary and cultural studies at Maynooth University, in County Kildare, Ireland. “With the dark clouds looming in the background, it’s almost premonitory.”
It’s also breathtakingly audacious.

Macdonald was born in Cork in 1820 and raised in the somewhat volatile atmosphere of that Irish city’s intelligentsia, whose heated conversations centered on linguistics, art, politics and Irish customs and folklore. His father, James, an erudite grocer, illustrator and ethnographer, was a prominent member of that curious and quarrelsome circle.

The younger Macdonald was mostly self-taught as an artist and hampered in his development by the paucity of art materials in that rural stretch of Ireland. Ms. O’Sullivan, who has written a book on Macdonald with the same title as the exhibition, said that this lack of much formal training may have “unfettered his originality” — freeing him to portray people as they were, rather than as they might have appeared through a classical lens. Indeed, she said, he seemed on the verge of an artistic maturity that would have secured his works for posterity had he not died of a fever in 1853 at 32, as if in fulfillment of some mournful Irish ballad.

The exhibition includes sketches and illustrations that demonstrate both his artistic skills and his gift for capturing everyday country life, from preparing for Mass to rushing home from a funeral. One panel is a comical lineup of the odd characters who once peopled the streets of Cork; witty paragraphs convey each person’s defining eccentricity.

Macdonald’s more ambitious works, however, demonstrate a keen, even appreciative understanding of the rural Irish and their ways. For example, he was only 22 in 1842 when he painted The Fairy Blast, which depicts a band of travelers moving hurriedly through the dark mountains just as a gust of wind — suggesting the presence of mischievous, malevolent fairies — is compounding their dread.

He took care not to mock. Judging from their different styles of dress, the travelers come from various class stations: landlord, farmer and wife, barefoot but well-fed tenants. The exhibition quotes Dr. William Wilde — surgeon, author and father of Oscar Wilde — to put the scene in respectful context:

“These matters of popular belief and folks’-lore, these rights and legends and superstitions, were, after all, the poetry of the people, the bond that knit the peasant to the soil.”

Another striking painting of Macdonald’s is The Fighter from 1844, which evokes the factional clashes that partly defined rural Ireland in the early 19th century — a violence rooted in economic instability, high food prices and oppression. Rebellion, then, was only natural.
Here is a handsome and muscular faction leader, a so-called captain, rolling up his sleeves and brandishing his weapon of a stick while a horn summons his minions to battle. “The subject fills the canvas,” Ms. O’Sullivan noted, “in a way that few peasants would have done before” — and without the condescension found in many other works of the period.

Mr. Gibbons agreed. “What’s striking there is the defiant pose,” he said. “A defiance in the sense of vigorously defending their rural conditions and rights as they understood them.”
These prefamine works by Macdonald cannot be viewed now without the detection of ominous things to come. In The Fairy Blast, for example, the swirling dust of supernatural malice. Or in Bowl Playing, the clenched fist of a workingman as he watches two well-known gentlemen of Cork — one a notoriously cruel landlord — engage in a game of bowling.

Then, in the heart of the hunger, a time when starvation and disease were rampant — a time when Charles Trevelyan, the British official in charge of famine relief, contended that this misery was the will of God visited upon a “selfish, perverse and turbulent” people — Macdonald unveiled “An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of Their Store” in London.

Did Macdonald’s bold painting, hinting of the ghastly devastation occurring just across the Irish Sea, cause a stir at the British Institution? No.

Although it was among a select group of paintings in the 1847 exhibition, Macdonald’s depiction of a blighted store barely merited comment, no matter that it was a real-time portrayal of the dread and rage in the Irish countryside, the imminent starvation and death implied. A single critic noted that the painting had “much power,” but his only elaboration was to note that one of the female subjects “is not in an Irish dress.”

In fact, it was another Irish painting that became the darling of the exhibition: Irish Courtship, by the British artist Frederick Goodall, depicted a suitor charming a demure young woman in an inoffensive, even twee setting, far removed from the reality of skeletal specters, and the shallow graves disturbed by vermin.

“Deliciously charming,” one critic wrote.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Share an image of the Artist

  Full access to biographies is
  free each Friday

About  Daniel Macdonald

Born:  1821 - Cork, Ireland
Died:   1853
Known for:  dramatic historical genre painting, sketches, illustrations