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Rodrigo Moynihan

(1910-1990), Painter

Sitter in 2 portraits
Artist associated with 8 portraits
Painter, principally of portraits and still-life. After experimenting with abstraction in the 1930s, his work became associated with the sober realism of the Euston Road School. Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art 1948-57.

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Rodrigo Moynihan, after Rodrigo Moynihan - NPG D39078

Rodrigo Moynihan

after Rodrigo Moynihan
offset lithograph, 1978
NPG D39078


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Christos Kanoutas

11 November 2019, 13:58

Info about the artist:
(Herbert George) Rodrigo Moynihan (17 October 1910 - 6 November 1990) was a British painter born in the Canary Islands. His mother was Spanish. His British-Spanish family moved to London in 1918 and then to the US. A winter in Rome 1927–1928 inspired him to devote himself to art and in 1928 he started studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
Moynihan married fellow artist Elinor Bellingham-Smith, daughter of Guy Bellingham-Smith, an obstetrician at Guy's Hospital. in 1931. Moynihan and Elinor lived at Old Church Street. Their home became a salon to writers and other artists. In 1946, Princess Elizabeth was accompanied by her mother to the house six times to sit for Moynihan, who had been commissioned to make her portrait.
Moynihan is credited with being a pioneer of abstract painting in England. He was a central figure in a London exhibition, Objective Abstractions (1934), which was the first show of pure abstract paintings in England. In 1934, while leading the Objective Abstraction movement, Moynihan stated that his painting identified itself with (and derived from) its means, rather than with a system in which the artist imposes upon the canvas a preconceived idea. 'The evolution is intimately bound up with the canvas and medium'. He later added: 'Our emphasis was on the painterly, on stroke and gesture having value in themselves, on looking with interest at the late Cézanne, late Monet, Turner, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy ... Contrary to Tachism and Expressionism we had a strictly limited view of colour, restraining its use because we thought it had fundamentally figurative allusions'. In his own words, he was 'continually aware of the lung movement of paint, its ability to breathe and move upon the surface of the canvas'.
From 1937, Moynihan returned to representational painting as if for the first time, though influenced by great masters from Velasquez to Picasso. He became associated with the Euston Road School and began to paint in a more clearly defined manner. Still life and figures in interiors, along with portraits, would become some of his principal themes.
Between 1940–1943 he served in the British Army, first in the Royal Artillery and then in camouflage. He was later given a full-time salaried commission by the War Artists' Advisory Committee, having previously completed several short-term contracts for the Committee. He completed several portraits of military figures. In 1944 Moynihan was commissioned by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts to paint a war poster, which was displayed around Britain as a reminder of the peace and happiness that would prevail when the war was won.
Many of his portraits of high-ranking officers and advisers are now in the Imperial War Museum. His portraits were often swiftly executed but sensitively observed. Influenced by artists such as Edouard Manet and Diego Velazquez. Moynihan often used a rich sensuous brushstroke to convey a sense of the subject’s physicality.
Moynihan was appointed an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1944, becoming it’s youngest member ever.
In Nov.- Dec. 1946, Moynihan’s works, along with those of Bacon, Roy de Maistre, John Minton, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland were exhibited under the title Peinture in an UNESCO exhibition at the Musée National d’Art moderne, Paris (now Centre Georges Pompidou)
After the war, he was a professor of painting at the Royal College of Art 1948–1957 and was elected RA in 1954. While Head of Painting at the Royal College of Art he was in demand for official portraits, and executed commissions of amongst others Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth (1946), Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1947) and Sir Reginald Thatcher.
During the early 1950s, Rodrigo Moynihan was highly influential on the work of his close friends and peers Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Sylvester. Between 1951-53, Rodrigo Moynihan lent his studio at the Royal College of Art to Francis Bacon free of charge. In that studio, Bacon pioneered his distinctive dark blue background and gave the “Study for a Portrait” (one of the most his most famous painting), to Rodrigo Moynihan as a demonstration of his appreciation. Moynihan painted a portrait of Bacon and Bacon painted a portrait of Freud and of Moynihan’s second wife Anne Dunn. Together with Bacon, Moynihan was a member of the Colony Room in Soho, which became known for its open-minded acceptance of all races and sexual orientations.
In the summer of 1956, working in Europe and North America, Moynihan returned to abstraction and first exhibited such works in Statements, a review of British abstract art in 1956, I.C.A., January–February 1957. Part of his statement in the catalogue reads: ‘When I start working on a bare canvas, I have an idea; but soon forget it. What is on the canvas at the end, sometimes seems to have some reference to the external world, and sometimes not.’
In 1960, he re-married with fellow-artist Anne Dunn, daughter of the Canadian steel magnate Sir James Dunn, with whom he had a second son Danny Moynihan (now an artist and a writer) and went to live in Provence, were Bacon along with other famous artists often paid a visit.
Moynihan and Bacon in Provence – 1966:
From 1971 onwards, Moynihan was inspired to return to figurative painting in the form of large-scale studio still-lifes, unordered, unarranged and apparently random. Moynihan's still lifes extend not only his personal mastery of the genre but also a long tradition of artists' meditation on their own craft. Moynihan is consistently sensitive to the exact revelation of colour and of form by the fall of light. The feel of contrasting substances is conveyed, as well as varying degrees of opacity and transparency and the translucency of modern plastics. Moynihan has remarked: 'These things I paint are kind of bone-coloured, and what fascinates me very much is the colour of dust and curious difficult transitions between very dull or dull-seeming colours ... their sort of dullness is full of light'.
Moynihan depicted various collections of objects as he found them: “It was especially important to me not to arrange the still life so as to form a pictorial grouping—a picture. I wanted the objects to be found… so that the dictionary words of describing an object disappear. I wanted to paint them because they looked like that—without my intervention—having arranged themselves like that in that particular light.”
This return to figuration also drew him to move back towards portraiture – with portraits of friends leading to renewed commissions by the end of the 1970s. Moynihan was re-elected to the Royal Academy in 1979. Notable portraits of this period include a portrait of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street, commissioned after the General Election of 1983 (National Portrait Gallery, London) and Dame Peggy Ashcroft (1984, National Portrait Gallery).
In 1985, HM Queen Elizabeth II commissioned Moynihan again to paint a pair of portraits. Both the Queen and Prince Philip are presented in casual clothing against an abstract woodland foliage background. The Moynihan paintings of the Queen and Prince Philip can be viewed by the public at Lady Grey’s Study, Hillsborough Castle.
The Tate organised an exhibition to celebrate his 80th birthday in 1990 with an article written about it in the Daily Telegraph.
Moynihan explored both abstraction and an almost analytical figurative style to the very end. In the sober works done shortly before his death, dark browns, slate and soot greys predominate.
His Obituary was published in the NY Times.
In 2002 his son John Moynihan published the book “Restless lives: the Bohemian World of Rodrigo and Elinor Moynihan” which provides an affectionate and humorous account of the Moynihans’ life in the London art world of the 1930s and 1940s. The book is now recommended reading material for art students. The release of the book coincided with an exhibition of some of Moynihan’s portraits at the famous Faggionato art gallery were Moynihan had countless exhibitions since the 1930’.
Moynihan’s works can be found in various museums and in private collections such as Damien Hirst’s private collection (exhibited in Moscow, 2013). At Cheffins, Cambridge, in March 2019, a 1938 self-portrait by Rodrigo Moynihan sold to Jack Wakefield, one of UKs foremost art dealers, who said the painting had reminded him of a Rembrandt.

Paintings in Museums and Public Art Galleries Worldwide:

Royal Academy of Arts Collection, London, UK

Tate Gallery, London, UK

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia Still life: fish and bottle

Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, UK

Brighton & Hove Museums, England

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. NEW!

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK
Captain Leslie W. A. Bennington

National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

Examples of his work published in artuk:

Past exhibitions:

Tate Modern List of Works

The Independent: Great Works

Denis Hopking

26 January 2018, 06:21

There is no mention of his celebrated portrait of Princess Elisabeth of York done in 1946 which made him famous. Collection of the late Queen Mother.