Kevin Monaghan – a painter of charm, wit and caustic edge

Five years younger than Eileen Monaghan Whitaker and the baby in the Monaghan family, Kevin Monaghan (1916-1989) was a multitalented artist, musician and man of words. To artist/sister Eileen, he was “a character, clever, witty, doing exactly what he wanted.” He could charm, delight and amuse if he liked you. He could cut you to the bone with his acerbic, outspoken, intense drollness if he didn’t.

Eileen referred to him as the “natural artist” with “such an eye for things.” In his paintings, Kevin demonstrated a unique imagination, skill as a draftsman, mastery of subdued color, and an often-mysterious, eerie handling of representational subject matter. Kevin labeled these paintings — his most ambitious ones — architectural moods or architectural portraiture.

These architectural depictions exude a haunting presence. Many were inspired by his service in the Army in Europe during the devastation of World War II. These include European places where he was stationed and in his travels there. Others were inspired by similar trips in Europe in the 1950s.

Constant facets of a Kevin — he signed his paintings simply Kevin — architectural portrait include weathered, historic buildings designed with a dimensional, curvilinear emphasis. They are accented with tiny, slender, linear figures. Even in their minuscule statures, seemingly over-powered by the large, commanding architectural structures, each ever so tiny figure takes on its own oddly engaging personality. Who are these persons? What do they do? Where is the setting? What was in Kevin’s mind? Whatever the answers, the questions tempt the viewer to speculate. Adding to the strange otherworldly reality of the settings, Kevin’s colors are subtle and muted, yet dramatic.

In addition to these major architectural portraits, many inspired by the cities, chateaus, churches, manors, and inns of Europe, Kevin did smaller paintings of a clock, “spider woman,” mistletoe, Victorian vignettes, portraits, and so on. He also did humorous, witty, and revealing sketches with notes and letters that he sent to his parents and sisters during his travels.

A member of the American Watercolor Society (AWS), Kevin studied at the Art Students League in New York, with Fernand Leger (1881-1955) in Paris, and with art academies in Rome, Bologna, and Milan after service in World War II. He exhibited in one-person and competitive shows on the East Coast in the mid-1950s. He also played piano professionally in Connecticut where he was billed as the “Prince of the Piano” and the “bearded Liberace of Westmor Restaurant.”

Despite these successes in art and music, Kevin became disillusioned with the commercialism in the United States and moved to Ireland (where his mother, Molly Doona Monaghan had been born) in the late 1950s, living in Dublin until his death in 1989. He did no serious painting that Eileen was aware of, after moving to Ireland. Instead, he ran a shop, Doona of Dublin, featuring Irish prints, antiques, souvenirs, and decorative items.

Throughout his service in the Army, his travels in Europe and his more than 30 years in Ireland, Kevin remained close, if not in proximity, at least in attentive correspondence, to his sister Eileen and her husband, Frederic Whitaker. In a letter from Bologna, Italy in 1949, Kevin said to Eileen:  “Delighted to hear that you have done a picture that you like — the sketch and description sound really like something very good — suppose it’s another of your prize-winners.” After the Whitakers moved from Norwalk, Connecticut to La Jolla, California in 1965, Kevin wrote: “I remember your life watercolor drawings . . . and being amazed at what emerged from the simple directness of your brush — a gift from God. . . . Darling, your pleasure and happiness delight me and I now await news of your new world.”

Though not actively painting in Ireland, Kevin was highly regarded in his adopted home in the Dublin art community. Upon his death, the Dublin Evening Press described Kevin as “an intrinsic member of the Dublin artistic set for more than two generations. Few Dublin artists were more recognizable . . . one of the city’s most memorable characters.”