Noah’s Ark by Eileen Rivers, 1948. Oil on canvas. 30 × 40 cm. © David Britton and Karen Reihill. Courtesy of the Irish American Cultural Institute’s O’Malley Collection at the University of Limerick.
Born in Hertfordshire, England, Elizabeth Rivers (1903–64) trained at Goldsmiths’ College and the Royal Academy School and studied in Paris for three years before moving to Ireland in 1935. Her seven years spent living on the Aran Islands inspired a large body of work based on her observations of the people and their customs. She returned to London during the Blitz to act as a fire warden, afterward settling permanently in Dublin. Although particularly noted for her skilled woodcut engravings and illustrations, Rivers worked in different media, including watercolor, oil, and sculpture.
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An intimate-sized oil painting based on the catastrophic flood in the Book of Genesis sent by God to eradicate human wickedness from the earth, Noah’s Ark (1948) portrays the moment when Noah and his wife disembark after the deluge and stand on the side of Mount Ararat, where the ark came to rest. In Rivers’s modernist composition, the large, angular structure of the ark dominates the canvas, delineated through flat patches of paint and thick brushstrokes. The subtractive marks of a palette knife used on the slanted roof of the ark and in the waves reflect the strong graphic quality of Rivers’s engravings. The repeating shapes of the painting’s arrangement in both defined and implied triangles suggest the influence of Cubist André Lhote (1885–1962). Rivers was one of a number of Irish women artists, including Mainie Jellett (1897–1944), Norah McGuinness (1901–80), and Evie Hone (1894–1955), who trained in Lhote’s atelier. The rhythmic patterning of the primary colors and forms also suggests Hone’s influence; Rivers worked with Hone from 1946 to 1955, translating her small sketches into large cartoons [End Page 5] for stained-glass windows, including the impressive The Crucifixion and Last Supper (1949–52, Eton College).
Rivers asserted that “real art is a language of passionate conviction.”1 The religious themes in her work from the mid-1940s, as well as her conversion to Catholicism in 1956, reveal the role of faith in her art. In Noah’s Ark the balance of reds and greens on the figures, land, and ark evokes harmony and stability. The warmer tones at the center of the work emphasize the sanctuary of the structure, while the surrounding tonal blues are calm and serene, implying the presence of a higher power. The range of colors rendered on the canvas, reminiscent of the rainbow, alludes to the new covenant that Noah made with God after the deluge. The allegory of faith and salvation in the biblical story held special significance for Rivers, particularly as she explored the subject in two related works: And the Lord Shut Them In (Noah’s Ark) (Date Unknown, Monotype, Private Collection) and The Ark (1948, Medium Unknown, Private Collection).
In 1951 Rivers traveled to Israel and six years later published an illustrated book titled Out of Bondage: Israel. The purpose of the trip was in part “the wish of a non-Jew to understand the mind and heart of the people who were ‘recreating’ their own myth in modern time.”2 Although the painting predates this trip by three years, the timing of Noah’s Ark in the aftermath of the Second World War and its allegorical meaning suggest hope, new beginnings, and the rebuilding of communities. The role of new beginnings also resonates with the artist’s personal life, given that Rivers adopted Ireland as her home and later embraced Catholicism. Furthermore, the house-like shape of the ark simultaneously evokes home and a journey, signifying that “home,” like faith, is something carried within.