Whelan, (Michael) Leo (1892–1956), portrait and genre painter, was born 17 January 1892 at 20 St George's Villas, Fairview, Co. Dublin, one of two sons and three daughters of Maurice Whelan, a draper, of Co. Kerry ancestry, and Mary Whelan (née Cruise), from Co. Roscommon. The family subsequently moved to 65 Eccles St., where his parents operated a small hotel. Educated at Belvedere college, Dublin, he then attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) (1908–14), where he was a student of William Orpen (qv), who had a huge influence on his artistic style. His fellow students at the school included Patrick Tuohy (qv) and Séan Keating (qv).
He was awarded many prizes in the RDS Taylor art competitions, including one in 1912 for a portrait of his sister Lena, entitled ‘On the moors’, rendered in a strongly academic technique. In 1916 he won the Taylor scholarship for the RHA schools for his finest early work, ‘The doctor's visit’ (NGI), an adroitly executed composition of contrasting shadows and light. Typical of many of his genre interiors, the painting depicts a room in the family home, with relatives as models: Whelan's mother sits by the bed watching over his ill cousin, while his sister, dressed in a Mater hospital nurse's uniform, is in the background opening the door for the doctor. The subtly evoked atmosphere of restrained emotion foreshadowed a hallmark of his mature style.
Whelan exhibited annually at the RHA for forty-five years (1911–56), averaging six works per year; elected an RHA associate in 1920, he became a full member in 1924. He participated in the Exposition d'art irlandais at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris (1922). A visiting teacher at the RHA schools in 1924, he also taught in the DMSA for a time. He had studios at 64 Dawson St. (1914–27) and 7 Lower Baggot St. (1931–56). Beginning in the 1910s, he received regular commissions for portraits, constituting his primary source of income. Having become, after his parents' deaths in the 1920s, the family's main breadwinner, he concentrated most of his production on this lucrative activity, portraying numerous leading figures in the spheres of politics, academia, religion, society, medicine, and law.
Coming from a family of militant nationalist sympathies, in 1922 he began a large group portrait, ‘GHQ staff of the pre-treaty IRA’, including Michael Collins (qv), Richard Mulcahy (qv), Rory O'Connor (qv), Liam Mellows (qv), and nine others, composed from individual studies of the men rendered during clandestine sittings in his home and studio; the painting, which Whelan left unfinished, is in McKee barracks, Dublin. He received special praise for his portraits of John Henry Bernard (qv), provost of TCD (c.1924), and of Louis Claude Purser (qv), TCD vice-provost; the latter was awarded a medal at the 1926 Tailteann games. He exhibited seventeen paintings at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, London, of which he was a member, and showed two works at the Royal Academy, London. His portrait (1929) of John McCormack (qv), one of his major patrons, was presented by the tenor's family some fifty years later to the National Concert Hall, Dublin.
Situated securely in the academic tradition, in most of his portraits Whelan favoured a sombre, restricted palette, with the sitter placed, in grave demeanour, against a monotone background with few accessories. In a 1943 interview he asserted that twentieth-century portraiture suffered from the drabness of modern costume, for which the artist must compensate by careful rendition of the subject's hands. He tended to depart from his prevailing portrait style when painting women, whom he characteristically depicted in meticulously observed interiors, a notable example being his portrait of society hostess Gwladys McCabe (c.1946; NGI).
His commercial concentration on portraiture notwithstanding, Whelan expressed his true talent in genre compositions, especially kitchen interiors, in which he emulated the technique of the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. Two of the most accomplished of these both depict his sister Frances in the basement kitchen of the family home: ‘The kitchen window’ (1927; Crawford gallery, Cork) demonstrates a particularly skilful use of light, while ‘Interior of a kitchen’(1935) is notable for the dexterous handling of objects of varied shapes and textures. Whelan's genre works include both urban and rural scenes, with a distinctive interest in portraying occupations and other activities. ‘Gypsy’ (1923), an Orpenesque composition of a shawled woman in a west-of-Ireland landscape with a caravan in the background, received wide contemporary critical acclaim. ‘Jer’ (c.1925), depicting a man seated by the fire in a cottage interior, was reproduced in J. Crampton Walker's Irish art and landscape (1927). ‘The fiddler’ (c.1932), a naturalistic, sensitively characterised study, was first shown at an Ulster Academy exhibition at Stranmillis, Belfast. ‘A Kerry cobbler’ was reproduced in Twelve Irish artists (1940), introduced by Thomas Bodkin (qv), as among the works denoting the development of a distinctively Irish school of painting.
In 1929 Whelan designed the first Irish Free State commemorative stamp, a portrait of Daniel O'Connell (qv) for the centenary of catholic emancipation. Commissioned by the Thomas Haverty trust to paint an incident from the life of St Patrick (qv) for the 1932 eucharistic congress, he executed ‘The baptism by St Patrick of Ethna the fair and Fedelmia the ruddy, daughters of the Ard Rí Laoghaire’, a work highly conservative in style. He rapidly completed an oil study of the papal legate, Lorenzo Cardinal Lauri, also for the eucharistic congress. He was represented in the 1932 Olympic art exhibition in Los Angeles. His depiction of St Brigit (qv), shown at the Academy of Christian Art exhibition (1940), became a familiar image owing to the wide circulation of reproductions.
Whelan's political portraits were influential in creating a strong, assured image of the newly formed Irish state, and thus retain an historical significance. His posthumous portrait, ‘The late General Michael Collins’, exhibited at the RHA in 1943 and now held in Leinster House, is an iconic, heroic image of the fallen leader. His portraits of Arthur Griffith (qv) and Kevin O'Higgins (qv) – commissioned posthumously, as was the ‘Collins’, by Fine Gael – also hang in Leinster House, while that of John A. Costello (qv), exhibited at the RHA in 1949, is now held in the King's Inns, Dublin. He painted two presidents, Douglas Hyde (qv) and Seán T. O'Kelly (qv); both works are in Áras an Uachtaráin. A portrait of Éamon de Valera (qv), painted in 1955 when the sitter was leader of the opposition, is in Leinster House. In 1954 Whelan designed a second commemorative stamp, picturing a reproduction of a portrait bust of John Henry Newman (qv), to mark the centenary of the Catholic University of Ireland.
Whelan was elected an honorary academician of both the Ulster Academy of Arts (1931), and the Royal Ulster Academy (1950). He became a member of the United Arts Club in 1934. As a representative of the RHA, he sat on the board of governors of the NGI for many years, and was on the advisory committee of the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. Unmarried, he resided until his death at the Eccles St. address, with two sisters who continued to manage the family hotel. He died 6 November 1956 from leukaemia at the Mater private nursing home, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery.