James Barry (1741-1806), Irish-English painter, was born at Cork in October 1741. His father had been a builder, and, at one time of his life, a coasting trader between the two countries of England and Ireland. To this business of trader James was destined, and he actually made several voyages as a boy; but he manifested such an aversion to the life and habits of a sailor as to induce his father to suffer him to pursue his own inclinations, which led strongly towards drawing and study. At the schools in Cork to which he was sent he was regarded as a prodigy. About the age of seventeen he first attempted oil-painting, and between that and the age of twenty-two, when he first went to Dublin, he produced several large pictures, which decorated his father's house, such as "Aeneas escaping with his Family from the Flames of Troy," "Susanna and the Elders," "Daniel in the Lions' Den".
At this period he also produced the painting which first brought him into public notice, and gained him the acquaintance and patronage of Edmund Burke. The picture was founded on an old tradition of the landing of St Patrick on the sea-coast of Cashel, and of the conversion and baptism of the king of that district by the patron saint of Ireland. It was exhibited in London in 1762 or 1763.
By the liberality of Burke and his other friends, Barry in the latter part of 1765 was enabled to go abroad. He went first to Paris, then to Rome, where he remained upwards of three years, from Rome to Florence and Bologna, and thence home through Venice. His letters to the Burkes, giving an account of Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, show remarkable insight. Barry painted two pictures while abroad, an Adam and Eve, and a Philoctetes, neither of them of any merit. Soon after his return to England in 1771 he produced his picture of Venus, which was compared, though with little justice, to the Galatea of Raphael, the Venus of Titian and the Venus de Medici. In 1773 he exhibited his "Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida." His “Death of General Wolfe,” in which the British and French soldiers are represented in very primitive costumes, was considered as a falling-off from his great style of art. His fondness for Greek costume was assigned by his admirers as the cause of his reluctance to paint portraits. His failure to go on with a portrait of Burke which he had begun caused a misunderstanding with his early patron. The difference between them is said to have been widened by Burke’s growing intimacy with Sir Joshua Reynolds, and by Barry’s feeling some little jealousy of the fame and fortune of his rival “in a humbler walk of the art.” About the same time he painted a pair of classical subjects, Mercury inventing the lyre, and Narcissus looking at himself in the water, the last suggested to him by Burke. He also painted a historical picture of Chiron and Achilles, and another of the story of Stratonice, for which last the duke of Richmond gave him a hundred guineas. In 1773 it was proposed to decorate the interior of St Paul’s with historical and sacred subjects; but the plan fell to the ground, from not meeting with the concurrence of the bishop of London and the archbishop of Canterbury. Bairy was much mortified at the failure, for he had in anticipation fixed upon the subject he intended to paint—the rejection of Christ by the Jews when Pilate proposes his release. In 1773 he published An Inquiry into the real and imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England, vindicating the capacity of the English for the fine arts and tracing their slow progress hitherto to the Reformation, to political and civil dissensions, and lastly to the general direction of the public mind to mechanics, manufactures and commerce. In 1774 a proposal was made through Valentine Green to Reynolds, West, Cipriani, Barry, and other artists to ornament the great room of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the Adelphi with historical and allegorical paintings. This proposal was at the time rejected by the artists themselves; but in 1777 Barry made an offer to paint the whole on condition of being allowed the choice of his subjects, and being paid by the society the expenses of canvas, paints and models. His offer was accepted, and he finished the series of pictures at the end of seven years to the entire satisfaction of the members of the society, who granted him two exhibitions, and at different periods voted him 50 guineas, their gold medal and 200 guineas. Of the six paintings making up the series, only one, that of the Olympic Games, shows any artistic power.
Soon after his return from the continent Barry had been chosen a member of the Royal Academy; and in 1782 he was appointed professor of painting in the room of Mr Penny with a salary of £30 a year. Among other things, he insisted on the necessity of purchasing a collection of pictures by the best masters as models for the students, and proposed several of those in the Orleans collection. This recommendation was not relished, and in 1799 Barry was expelled ‘from the academy, soon after the appearance of his Letter to the Dilettanti Society, a very amusing but eccentric publication, full of enthusiasm for his art and at the same time of contempt for the living professors of it. After the loss of his salary, a subscription was set on foot by the earl of Buchan to relieve him from his difficulties, and to settle him in a larger house to finish his picture of Pandora. The subscription amounted to £1000, with which an annuity was bought, but on the 6th of February 1806 he was seized with illness and died on the 22nd of the same month. On the 4th of March his remains were interred in St Paul’s.
As an artist, Barry was more distinguished for the strength of his conceptions, and for his resolute and persistent determination to apply himself only to great subjects, than for his skill in designing or for beauty in his colouring. His drawing is rarely good, his colouring frequently wretched. He was extremely impulsive and unequal; sometimes morose, sometimes sociable and urbane; jealous of his contemporaries, and yet capable of pronouncing a splendid eulogy on Reynolds.