Portrait Of Mary Colum By George William Russell (AE) (1867 - 1935)

Date: 1924
Dimensions: 53.5 × 43cm
Medium Oil: on canvas
Collection: Niland Collection
Provenance: Unknown


Mary Colum (1884-1957) was an academic and writer who spent most of her adult life in New York. She was born in Collooney, Co. Sligo and later taught at Padraig Pearse’s school in St. Enda’s in Dublin. In 1912 she married the writer Padraic Colum whose literary career AE had encouraged. The couple emigrated to the United States in 1914.

Colum recounts the creation of this portrait in her auto-biography (1). It was painted in Dublin in 1924 while she was back on a visit from America. AE was interested in painting her so that he could hear her views on modern poetry, a subject on which she wrote and lectured. But during the sittings Colum had difficulty getting a word in as AE held forth on the topic. Colum found the best way of intervening was to ‘whirl off some strange piece of poetry’ usually in French or German which AE didn’t understand. AE got his revenge by making Colum’s curly red hair look wild in the finished portrait, despite the fact that she had had a finger wave put in to keep it under control. Colum also felt that AE had made her mouth too large while AE retorted that nature had given her practically no mouth and that he’d had to invent one for her. One gets a sense of the amiable tension between the two writers in the taut features of Colum’s face. The latter is relieved by the attention given to her red hair and the embroidered blue throw which she is wearing.

(1)Mary Colum, Life and the Dream, Doubleday and Company, New York, 1947, p.172.

Written by Roisin Kennedy


About the Artist

George William Russell (AE) (1867-1935)

Born 1867, Lurgan, Ireland. Died 1935, Bournemouth, England. Russell was born in Lurgan, County Armagh on 10 April 1867, moving to Dublin with his family when he was eleven. In 1890, he started work at Pym’s store in Dublin. For many years, beginning in 1897, he worked full-time for Sir Horace Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, a co-operative movement. He began as a ‘missionary’, travelling extensively throughout Ireland convincing farmers of the benefit of developing credit societies and co-operative banks. He became editor first of The Irish Homestead, and later of its successor, The Irish Statesman, where he published Patrick Kavanagh’s early poems, until it ceased publication in 1930. After leaving school in 1884, Russell went to Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art where he first met W.B.Yeats, who became his friend and later his rival. In that year too Russell suddenly began to experience waking dreams of astonishing power and vividness which seemed to be thrust into his consciousness by a mind which was not his. A.E.‘s and Yeats’s interests in these visions led both to Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Movement, with A.E. later joining the Dublin group. Russell was one of the major writers in the Irish Literary Renaissance. Among his poetry collections are Homeward: Songs by the Way (1894); The Earth Breath (1897); The Divine Vision (1904); Collected Poems (London, MacMillan, 1913/New York, John Lane, 1916); Salutation (1917) The House of the Titans (1934); and Selected Poems (1935). His mystical writings include The Candle of Vision (1918); The Avatars (1933); The Interpreters (1922); and Song and its Fountains (1932). Russell was principally a painter of landscapes with figures, and of wonderful beings who might be incorporated into the landscapes, or be the dominant features on the canvas, often with amazed mortals observing them. This fluency, and habit of moving from one canvas to a new one to capture a new image meant that his pictures were often left unfinished, and as a result many of them are not as good as he could have made them. Those he did complete are often outstanding. He used the pseudonym AE, or more properly “Æ” This derived from an earlier “Æ‘on” signifying the lifelong quest of man, subsequently shortened. He died on July 17, 1935, in Bournemouth, England. He is buried in Dublin.

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