Peter De Gree, Decorative Painter

(d. 1789)

Decorative Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Was born in Antwerp, the son of a tailor. Being intended for the Church he received a good education, but, abandoning the idea of taking orders, he became a pupil of the painter, Martin Joseph Geeraerts, who excelled in grisaille painting in imitation of bas-reliefs, and whose style De Gree afterwards successfully imitated. In Antwerp he met David La Touche, of Marlay, and painted several pictures for him; and he also became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, who employed him as agent for purchasing pictures for himself and the Duke of Rutland. Writing to the Duke, 10th September, 1785, Reynolds refers to his correspondent in Flanders, and the purchase of a Van Dyck and a Rubens, and says: "I must beg leave to mention to your Grace the person I have employed in this business; his name is De Gray, a very excellent painter in chiaro-oscuro in imitation of basso-relievos. He paints likewise portraits in oil and in crayons extremely well. He was very civil and attentive to me when I was at Antwerp, and was the means of my purchasing some very fine pictures. He then told me he intended going to Ireland, having been invited by Mr. Cunningham; and I promised to recommend him to your Grace's protection, which I can with a very safe conscience, not only as a very ingenious artist, but as a young man of very pleasing manners" (Rutland Papers, Vol. III, pp. 240 and 268, in 14th Report of Hist. MSS. Commission).

De Gree left Antwerp in 1785, and arrived in London, where he was kindly received by Reynolds who generously presented him with fifty guineas to defray his expenses to Ireland and furnished him with a letter of introduction to the Duke of Rutland, at that time Lord Lieutenant. De Gree's first works on his arrival in Ireland were executed for David La Touche. In the house, No. 52 St. Stephen's Green, then the residence of La Touche, he decorated the walls of the Music Room with paintings representing Apollo and the Muses, Orpheus and Eurydice and other subjects connected with music. These paintings still exist. He also painted for the Dining Room a series of pictures representing the Elements.* These were removed by Lord Robert Ponsonby Tottenham (who succeeded to the ownership of the house) to his place, Woodstock, Co. Wicklow, where they still remain. Two rooms at Curraghmore, Co. Waterford, were also decorated by him. On the ceiling of the drawing-room are circular medallions of Amorini, and on the walls of the dining-room are oval panels with groups of the Gods of Olympus and similar classic subjects. It is traditionally said that the subjects in the drawing-room were copies after De Witt, while those in the dining-room were De Gree's own original designs; also, that portion of the decoration in the drawing-room was the work of Antonio Zucchi, the husband of Angelica Kauffmann.

De Gree, although he worked hard and charged low prices for his pictures, was not very successful. He lived in two small rooms, stinting himself in order to send to his parents in Antwerp all that he could spare of his earnings. The privations he endured broke down his health, and in January, 1789, he died in his house in Dame Street. In a notice of his death in "Faulkner's Journal" he is described as "an inimitable painter in chiaro-oscuro." He excelled in painting groups of children in imitation of basso-relievo in marble in the manner of his master, Geeraerts, and of Jacob De Witt. Several of these are at Carton, some were at Bellevue the seat of the La Touches, and one at Powerscourt formerly belonged to the La Touche family at Luggela. In 1788 he executed some paintings for the Dublin Society for the decoration of their meeting-room in their house in Grafton Street. For these he received twelve pounds and a silver palette. The pictures are mentioned in Carr's "Stranger in Ireland," 1806, as "excellent imitations of basso-relievo by De Gray, a promising young Irish artist, on the subject of Ceres and Triptolemus." The work was engraved in the "Universal Magazine" in 1790, with the title "The Goddess Ceres teaching Triptolemus Agriculture."

After the artist's death the Society purchased several of his drawings for the use of the school. He was engaged by the Marquess of Buckingham to paint pictures in basso-relievo of the Four Seasons, to be put up over the doors of the Presence Chamber in Dublin Castle; but at the time of his death he had only finished "Autumn." A contemporary notice describes the works as "strikingly designed and rendered so seemingly independent of the canvas that to the nicest eye they are the deception of relief highly finished by the sculptor's chisel, and starting forward with unexampled beauty and boldness" ("Dublin Chronicle," 29th Nov., 1788, and 7th Jan., 1789). De Gree made some attempts at portrait-painting, but not successfully. He was to have been the keeper of the Academy of Painting in Dublin projected by the Duke of Rutland.

*De Gree's series here mentioned are six large pictures in grisaille, in imitation of bas-relief, of "Diana," "Neptune," "Apollo," "Bacchus," "Venus" and "Ceres," and four smaller ones of "The Elements." The dining-room at Woodstock, which they now so effectively decorate, was built specially for their reception by Lord Robert Ponsonby Tottenham.

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