Kavanagh, Joseph Malachy (1856–1918), painter, was born in Dublin; nothing is known of his family background. He first exhibited at the RHA in 1875, and in the same year was awarded the silver medal at the RDS Christmas exhibition. In 1877–8 he was a free student at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he won first prize for drawing from the antique as well as the Grundy Prize. His successful student career continued at the RHA schools, where he studied with Walter Osborne (qv) under the professor of painting, Augustus Burke (qv). It seems likely that Burke, an early example of an Irish impressionist who had painted in Brittany, was an important influence on both Kavanagh and his friend Osborne. His academic training was consolidated by his years spent at the Académie Royale in Antwerp, where he went in late 1881 having been awarded the Albert scholarship. He studied there under Charles Verlat (1824–90) along with Osborne and Nathaniel Hill. The three lodged at 49 Kloosterstraat, from where Kavanagh sent paintings for exhibition at the RHA in 1882.
The painting ‘Under the shadow of St Jacques’ (1881; private collection, see Campbell, 198) is in many ways a typical example of his work at this time. It depicts a scene from everyday Flemish life, with figures in peasant dress placed in a courtyard. The carefully rendered realistic detail shows the impact of Verlat's teaching, which is allied to his concern, evident here, to capture the contrasting effects of light and shadow as he painted out of doors. While in its setting and choice of subject matter there are strong similarities with Osborne's ‘Beneath St Jacques’ (1882; private collection; ibid., 199) – the two worked closely together at this time – there are a number of features that are distinctive to Kavanagh's style. Probably most striking is the strong sense of recession he creates, denoting his enduring fascination with perspectival effects. This is heightened by a sense of enclosure created in the composition; little sky can be seen above the rooftops. This also allows him to indulge his interest in architectural detail. All this is unified by a cool, restrained tone. The woman seen from the back in the foreground, a device intended to lead the viewer into the image, is a motif often repeated by Kavanagh.
In 1883 he travelled with Osborne to Brittany, where they worked at Quimperle, Mont-Saint-Michel, and Dinan. His painting ‘Old convent gate, Dinan’ (1883; NGI), with its picturesque choice of scene, dark tonality, and limited palette, shows how Kavanagh identified with the more conservative realist style of the Hague school rather than French impressionism. In the technique of etching he found a medium well suited to his artistic concerns with tone, line, and perspective. Again, this is an area where the influence of Verlat may be detected. He was a moving figure in the revival of the process in the mid nineteenth century. Examples of his work in this medium may be found in the British Museum.
Kavanagh returned to Dublin in 1887. His self-portrait ‘Pursuing his gentle calling’ (1887; private collection; ibid., 207) is characteristic of his pictures of Dublin streets at this time, in that it could as easily pass for a Breton scene. The coastal landscape of Dublin and its riverbanks were of inspiration to him throughout his career. As in his earlier paintings, artisans and their activities are a recurring theme, which can result in a degree of sentimentality at times. His coastal scenes of the early 1900s show a greater freedom in his brushwork, though they are still not fully impressionist.
He received official recognition soon after returning home, being elected an associate member of the RHA (1889) and a full member (1892). From 1892 to 1911 he taught in the life class at the RHA schools. In 1910 he was appointed keeper of the academy in succession to his friend Henry Allan (qv). On Allan's death (1912) Kavanagh donated his ‘Dutch interior’ to the NGI. A diligent and serious character, he became deeply involved in the affairs of the academy and made an important contribution to improving its financial position on becoming treasurer (1911). In 1916 he endured the traumatic ordeal of the burning of Academy House, Lower Abbey St., Dublin, where he was resident at the time. As the fire spread he managed to save a few documents and the royal charter, somewhat to the chagrin of Sarah Purser (qv) who felt he should have saved more, though he was sympathetically supported by the academy's president, Dermod O'Brien (qv). On leaving the building he was arrested by British troops and held incommunicado for one week at the Custom House. He was said never to have recovered from this shock and his health declined. He died unmarried at the Fitzwilliam nursing home, Pembroke St., Dublin, on 2 April 1918.