It’s a busy and merry scene. There is music and dancing and bobbing for apples. Couples flirt, young women dream, old women help divine the future. Men drink from tankards. Children whisper in the shadows, sleep, watch. On the left, a young woman pours a spoonful of lead into cold water; the shape it makes will foretell what will happen during the coming year. Darkness hovers outside the warm light illuminating their activities.
The painting is called Snap-Apple Night. The artist is Daniel Maclise. The inspiration was a Halloween party he attended in 1832 in Ireland, the country of his birth. The description in the catalogue when he first showed the painting said:
There Peggy was dancing with Dan
While Maureen the lead was melting,
To prove how their fortunes ran
With the Cards could Nancy dealt in;
There was Kate, and her sweet-heart Will,
In nuts their true-love burning,
And poor Norah, though smiling still
She’d missed the snap-apple turning.
On the Festival of Hallow Eve.
This is not Halloween as we’ve come to know it, a time for children and sweets and tricks and scary scenes. It’s closer to the idea of Samhain or Summer’s End in the old Irish calendar, a time when natural and supernatural worlds were closest. It was a time a time for people to acknowledge the past and the dead and try to divine what lay ahead.
Not that Maclise himself would have been likely to rely on or believe in this kind of divination. A self-sufficient man, he used his skills as an artist to support his art studies, rather than take advantage of the financial help others offered.
He began with pencil portraits and lithographs. Over time he focused on creating paintings like this one, sharing Irish and other traditions, as well as historical picture, portraits and illustrations of works by authors like Shakespeare and Goldsmith and for Dicken’s Christmas books. Towards the end of his career he created two monumental works, The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher, and The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. People were at the heart of his work.
Just as people are at the heart of this Halloween celebration.