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Roderic O'Conor - Biography

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Seascape with Pink Foam

An Overview

The nature of painting changed beyond all recognition between the mid to late nineteenth century and the First World War. In these years an enormous change took place in what painters were trying to achieve. From the Renaissance rediscovery of perspective onwards, the skill of a painter lay in disguising the fact that what was before the viewer was merely paint applied to a flat surface. There was a contradiction between the physical object before the viewer, which was no more than flat patches of colour, and the magic window created by the genius of the painter, through which the viewer could observe a fully rendered reality. This was the painter as magician. However, from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, painters began to feel that more could be gained from drawing the attention of the viewer towards the contradiction inherent in traditional European painting than from disguising it. Numerous factors, chiefly the invention of photography, brought about a situation in which the magicians decided to reveal their tricks.

Traditionally painting had been the medium of visual record. Photography usurped this function as this new medium could represent visual reality with an accuracy which painting could never hope to achieve. If the traditional function of painting had been removed, what was its new function to be? The artists’ response to this question was what informed the enormous transformation that took place in painting from the 1870's onwards.

Painting is essentially the interplay of form and colour. The monochrome photographs of the time could represent form with greater scientific accuracy than painting, but colour was still the preserve of painters. The development of scientific theories of colour served to further emphasise the importance of colour and brought about increased interest in colour and its application. The evolution of painting from 1870 onwards was dominated by the liberation of colour. Colour gradually became more a means of expression than an aid to visual record.

In order to get a flavour for this period one must be aware of the dangers of hindsight. Hindsight distorts. Datelines, key points and summaries give an impression of reality at odds with the day-to-day existence of those who lived in that time. Hindsight projects back onto any epoch a reality which is too ordered, too sequential and too immediately aware of the significance of the works of that age, works which history will only later deem to be masterpieces. History favours labels of convenience. The era from 1870 onwards is an age rife with ‘isms’; Impressionism; Synthesism; Expressionism; Fauvism; Cubism, etc. These are but a few of the terms generated by this era. It is easy to look back and label these art movements, to list their founders and followers, to give their dates. This practice gives a false impression. This was a time of revolution in the visual arts. Every artist of merit sought his own means of expression.

Artists who took aspects of these movements and explored them to their own ends were the artists who produced works of genius. Such are the painters who evolved their medium. The emphasis placed on individual interpretation is what advanced painting so rapidly from the advent of Impressionism onwards. The career of Roderic O’Conor ran, more or less, concurrently with these events, a fact clearly discernible in his work.

O’Conor was born in Roscommon in 1860 and died in France in 1940. He spent the vast majority of his mature career in France. His time there may, broadly speaking, be divided into two parts. The first part was spent by and large in Brittany from 1891 onwards; the second was spent mainly in Paris, from 1904 to 1933.

Whilst in Brittany O’Conor painted mostly at Pont-Aven. He became a member of the Pont-Aven circle, a loosely acquainted group of avant-garde artists united in their adherence to Paul Gauguin and his Synthesist theories. O’Conor established links with Gauguin, a friendship often regarded as the most important of the Irishman’s life. Whilst at Pont-Aven he experimented constantly with new styles of painting. Most of O’Conor’s finest works were produced in and around Pont-Aven between 1892 and 1904. They are progressive, expressive, individualistic pieces. It was during these years that he developed his method of colouring in parallel stripes. His subject matter in Brittany was mainly exterior, i.e. landscapes and seascapes, although he also produced some portraits and a number of etchings. The influence of the Impressionists, Van Gogh and Gauguin is evident in the paintings he produced during this time.

In Paris, O’Conor’s interest in experimentation appears to have waned. His Parisian subject matter is predominantly interior, consisting mainly of nudes, still lifes and flower pieces. Dr. Roy Johnston describes O’Conor’s Parisian style as expressive realism. His work in Paris is characterised by a rejection of the great twentieth century art movements developing around him. Instead he attempted to develop his own individual style. This stands in marked contrast to his days in Brittany where he experimented enthusiastically with the emergent styles of the late the nineteenth century.

Much of O’Conor’s earlier work is notable for a certain pre-emptive quality. As Clive Bell, art critic and friend of O’Conor, remarked when speaking of the Pont Aven paintings: “These pictures painted at the beginning of the century are sometimes oddly like what daring young men were to paint ten years later.” Brian Sewell has also noticed this pre-emptive aspect in O’Conor’s paintings; “. . . when you look at the earlier work and you say; ‘Oh, yes he’s been looking at Van Gogh, he’s been looking at Gauguin, at Serusier or whatever’; and you check the date, you find this is not the case, in fact it’s the other way around. He arrived at painterly solutions long before other people.”

Paintings such as Houses at Lezaven, Pont-Aven clearly demonstrate this important aspect of O’Conor’s work. It is a hugely expressive canvas in which O’Conor appears to have used a palate influenced by the Fauves. However, as with many of his other works, the dates simply do not tally. As we have already discussed, the painting was finished in 1897 or 1898, about eight years before the emergence of the Fauve School.

During his lifetime the income from his estate in Ireland ensured that he never had to paint for a living. O’Conor appears to have disliked dealers and is reported to have found the idea of selling his work abhorrent. Therefore, very little of his work was sold during his lifetime. The majority of his work now in circulation can be traced to the studio auction held after his wife’s death in 1955.


A Master Rediscovered


Interest in the work of Roderic O’Conor has increased constantly over recent decades. All the more strange then that as late as the mid fifties O’Conor was a virtual unknown. The manner in which O’Conor came back to the attention of the art world is outlined below.

O’Conor’s wife, Renée Honta survived him by fifteen years. After her death the contents of his studio were sold to the general public. The auction took place in Paris in 1956. Interest in the event at the time centred on the sale of the artist’s impressive private collection, which included works by Bonnard, Modigliani, Gauguin, Derain and Toulouse Lautrec. These were fully catalogued and sold on the first day of the sale. Needless to say, the collection was well received and made good prices. By contrast, O’Conor’s own works were simply numbered, stamped and auctioned off; many in unframed and unstretched multiple lots.

It so happened, however, that Henry Roland, a partner in the Mayfair art dealers, Roland, Browse and Delbanco, was in Paris and by chance viewed the auction. Roland was immediately struck by O’Conor’s work. He later wrote of having been “overwhelmed by its beauty”, describing the paintings as “absolutely wonderful pictures.” By the end of the afternoon the company had acquired over 120 works by the artist. It was this acquisition that was ultimately to bring O’Conor from a position of relative obscurity to the prominence he enjoys today.

Two months after the auction, Roland, Browse and Delbanco held a joint exhibition of O’Conor and Matthew Smith’s work. The Irishman’s paintings were critically well received. Further exhibitions of the artist’s work were held in 1957, 1964 and 1971. The exhibitions served both to further his reputation amongst those already familiar with the artist and to bring O’Conor to the attention of a rapidly growing number of people.

This is a pattern that continues today. Each showing attracts greater interest in his work, the beauty of which in turn serves to enhance his reputation. An article by Denys Sutton in the Studio, 1960, subtitled ‘Little known member of the Pont-Aven circle’ brought O’Conor acclaim amongst academics. At its best, his paintings convey a sense of a great individuality within a seemingly familiar idiom. It is the contrast of these qualities and the tension between the two that gives O’Conor’s work it’s longevity, and therefore ensures his position as “Ireland’s most important and significant painter of modern times” [Johnston, 1985].


Background and Early Career

Roderic O’Conor was born to a wealthy landowning family at Milton, Co Roscommon in 1860. He trained at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, the Royal Hibernian Academy and the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp before moving to Paris in 1886. Here he studied under Carolus-Duran, a tutor who emphasised the importance of individual interpretation and expression in the production of art. This is a philosophy which is at the heart of O’Conor’s work and which greatly influenced his development as an artist. Throughout his life he remained very much his own man, both as an individual and as an artist,

By the late 1880's O’Conor had developed a predominantly Impressionist style, adapting the techniques of various Impressionists to his own ends. Works such as ‘Landscape with Road and Farm Buildings’ recall aspects of Monet whilst the later ‘ Edge of the Wood ’ clearly shows an appreciation for the work of the Pointillists, notably Seurat. Great artists in the modern era cannot however be neatly divided into categories of influence and influenced. This was an age during which contemporary masters simultaneously influenced and were influenced by each other. The young O’Conor was undoubtedly inspired by the originality and creative brilliance of the Pointillists and the Impressionists, particularly Monet and Alfred Sisley. In this same way, he later recognised the genius of Van Gogh and Gauguin. He reacted by gorging on the influence of these contemporary masters. He absorbed from their work the same inspiration an art student might draw from the study of a great past master. This is the key to understanding O’Conor’s importance as a painter. One must realise that the influence of other artists on his work was always adaptive rather than adoptive. Like the other masters of the modern movement, O’Conor sought always to innovate rather than imitate. The innovations of others were starting points for his own explorations, just as his innovations were points of departure for the explorations of his fellow painters. It was this symbiosis that so rapidly advanced the evolution of painting throughout the modern era.


Painting at Grez-sur-Loing

Anyone viewing an O’Conor painting for the first time will immediately be struck by the spontaneity and exuberance of the work. This impression is entirely accurate, insofar as it is the reaction that O’Conor sought to provoke in the viewer. However, this initial impression belies the actual process involved in the production of even his most instantaneous works. Meticulously planned preparatory drawings are the underlying foundations of these paintings. The expressive, spur-of-the-moment feel conveyed in the resultant canvases derives from the quality of these skeletal drawings.

The graceful, effortless performance of a prima ballerina masks the years of training and endless, heart-breaking hours of practice, which is her day-to-day existence. It is just the same with O’Conor. The final performance never reveals the years of study or the hours spent in planning and preparing a composition. Seascape with Pink Foam is a perfect example of this process. The catalogue notes on this particular work reveal his working methods and how carefully this masterpiece was composed. There is evidence to show that O’Conor applied this same approach to other paintings.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Paysage au Ruisseau

Oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 18. Stamped verso atelier O’Conor
Provenance: Studio Sale, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 1956;

Inscribed verso, Le Griz

These highly developed skills derive from O’Conor’s nine years of academic training, skills that were finely tuned by the time he arrived at Grez-sur-Loing in 1888. The village, to the southeast of Paris, had been an artist's haunt since the 1830's. It was here that the young Irishman acquainted himself with the Impressionist's methods and techniques. O’Conor appears to have been at his most prolific at this time, submitting ten works from that year to the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. However, he gradually tired of Impressionism. Perhaps he strove to portray something less transient, less fleeting than the style would allow. He was to find his new inspiration in Brittany, in the work of the emergent Symbolist or Synthesist group.


The Pont-Aven Circle

Paul Gauguin came to represent the avant-garde in France at this time. Gauguin himself was a stockbroker until the early 1880's when he abandoned his career to take up painting. By then he had amassed a sizeable collection of impressionist paintings. Gauguin first visited Pont-Aven in 1886 during which time, like O’Conor, he experimented with Impressionism. It was a style with which he also became rapidly disillusioned. In 1888 Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven after a year of travel overseas. Working in tandem, he and fellow artist, Emile Bernard, set about developing the style in which they wished to paint. The two regarded ‘primitive’ art as their greatest influence. They sought to establish a symbolic visual language through which they could express ideas and emotions and make them communicable to others, just as the art of medieval Europe and ancient Egypt had done. Primitive religious art was eminently suited to such a task as its viewers were at once wholly visually and spiritually connected with the subjects which these art forms portrayed.

Photograph of an etching by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Le Verger

Etching and drypoint. 10 x 13 inches
Dr. Roy Johnston, Prints Catalogue, Musée de Pont-Aven, number 15

Bernard’s own experiments had already led him towards the creation of a new style which the art critic, Edouard Dujardin, referred to as ‘cloisonnisme’. The term originated from a technique derived from enamelling. This technique framed flat areas of colour with metal outlines, which were then either darkened or gilded according to the craftsman’s requirements. The style was probably also influenced by medieval European stained glass. Gauguin adopted this new style, which the two men then gradually evolved towards a more symbolic genre.

Gauguin’s force of personality ensured that their break away from Impressionism and Realism rapidly attracted a following amongst the more progressive artists in Brittany at the time. The Pont-Aven group’s first exhibition was held at the Café Volponi in Paris in 1889. It seems likely that O’Conor, who spent much of his time in Paris visiting galleries and showings, would have seen the work on this occasion. In general, the new Pont-Aven style rejected the portrayal of observable reality in favour of this new symbolist approach. Each picture was regarded as a means by which ideas and feelings could be conveyed to the viewer. Visually these works were characterised by a flattened picture plane, a simplification of form, a firm division of colour areas and the use of a surreal palette. The colours which constituted this palette were used more to convey emotion than to define structure. This new Symbolist movement gave its members great scope for individual expression, ensuring that the relationship between founders and adherents was never akin to that of master and disciple. The symbolist emphasis on individuality was key to O’Conor’s artistic development. He was an artist who pursued his own path, paying only token homage to the major artistic developments that ran concurrently with his career. The diversity in the Pont-Aven school undoubtedly suited O’Conor’s needs as a developing artist.


O’Conor in Pont-Aven

By the beginning of the 1890's O’Conor had moved to Pont-Aven. In all probability, O’Conor was enticed there by the work of Gauguin and his followers. As mentioned above, it seems likely that he would have seen their work in Paris. O’Conor had already visited Pont-Aven in 1887 and so was aware of its potential as a location and of the potential of Breton culture as subject matter. Indeed, as Johnston notes, he was probably aware of the area’s suitability as a location for painting even before he left Ireland. Breton subjects were common in the work of the previous generation of Irish painters who had exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy. O’Conor would surely have seen these pictures during his studies in Dublin.

Photograph of an etching by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

La Maison du Pendu au Pouldu

Etching.
5 ½ x 8 ½ inches. Restrike 1981
Dr. Roy Johnston, Prints Catalogue, Musée de Pont-Aven, number 23

O’Conor’s literary interest would suggest that an article by the critic Albert Aurier may have caught his attention. The piece, entitled ‘ Symbolism in Painting ’, was published in the Mercure de France in March 1891. The article was in praise of Gauguin’s painting ‘ Jacob wrestling the Angel ’. Using Gauguin as his example, Aurier set out the criteria to which a work of art should aspire. Aurier believed that a work of art must respect five criteria. Firstly, it must be Ideative; its single aim should be the expression of an idea. Like the poet Moreas before him, he felt that the purpose of art was to “clothe the idea in sensuous form.” Secondly, it must therefore be Symbolist; it must use forms or symbols, to convey the idea. Thirdly, it must be Synthesist; it must use these forms in such a way as to make them generally understood. Fourthly, it must be Subjective; the work will never be considered merely as an object but as an indication of the idea perceived by the viewer. Finally, it must therefore be Decorative; decorative painting, is at once synthetic, symbolic, and ideative.

This esoteric doctrine would have undoubtedly appealed to an intelligent young painter such as O’Conor. If he did read Aurier’s article, there can be little doubt that it would have been a motivating factor in his decision to move to Pont-Aven. It should be noted that the term Synthesism is now used to describe Symbolism in the visual arts in order to avoid confusion with an earlier French literary movement which was also referred to as Symbolism. O’Conor himself left no clear indications as to the reasons for his move. All the above explanations have some validity. It may be that all these factors encouraged O’Conor to see Brittany for himself. There is uncertainty as to the date of his arrival. It may have been in 1891. However, there is no doubt that by 1892 he was living and painting in Pont-Aven.

Much of O’Conor’s greatest work was painted during his years at Pont-Aven. It was here that he developed his striped style of painting, the so-called zebriste technique. This must have been an exciting time for the young Irishman as he experimented with new styles of painting and cultivated friendships amongst the artists in the town. When assessing the development of O’Conor’s work during the early years in Pont-Aven it is important to remember that Gauguin, the leader of the Synthesist movement, was not actually present in Brittany until the middle of 1893. O’Conor’s preliminary experiments with the new symbolist philosophy took place in Gauguin’s absence. Indeed Gauguin is not the artist who springs to mind when one looks at O’Conor’s early Pont-Aven work, but rather Van Gogh.

Works such as ‘ Field of Corn, Pont-Aven, 1892 and Yellow Landscape, Pont-Aven, 1892 clearly show an appreciation of Van Gogh’s technique. Their garish colour and expressive brushstrokes are typically Van Gogh, as is the subject matter, trees and cornfields. It is unclear as to how O’Conor first came into contact with Van Gogh’s work. There are reports that O’Conor may have visited Van Gogh’s studio in Paris in the late 1880's, although it is hard to find concrete evidence for such a visit Bernard, whose acquaintance O’Conor made at Pont-Aven, organised a posthumous exhibition of Van Gogh’s work in 1892. After the exhibition, he brought some of the Dutchman’s work with him to Pont-Aven and showed them to O’Conor and the Swiss artist, Cuno Amiet. Both were staggered by the works, which perhaps suggests that this was O’Conor’s first encounter with Van Gogh. Certainly the influence is not evident before this time. It was from Van Gogh that O’Conor appears to have derived his zebriste technique; indeed it is difficult to estimate the extent of Van Gogh’s influence on O’Conor during those early Pont-Aven years. If Gauguin and his circle set O’Conor’s mind thinking, it was Van Gogh who set his hand painting.

Upon his arrival in Pont-Aven O’Conor took up residence in the Pension Gloanec where he became friendly with Armand Seguin and the Scotsman, Eric Forbes-Robertson. The three shared many of the same interests generally found amongst Gauguin’s adherents. They studied Japanese prints, which were very much in vogue at the time. They appreciated the work of Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec and Cézanne. Most importantly, they held iconoclastic views with regards to the state of established painting in France.

Seguin was already a member of the Nabis when he met O’Conor. The term Nabis comes from the Hebrew word for prophet. They were a group of artists established by Paul Seurisier, under the influence of Gauguin, to spread the good news of Synthesism. In 1888, under Gauguin’s tutelage, Serusier had painted a landscape in accordance with the precepts of Synthesism. Serusier was so taken with this new method that he brought the painting to Paris. The piece was given the auspicious title of ‘the Talisman, and was used in the promotion of the new movement. The movement’s adherents referred to themselves as Nabis because they felt that they were predicting the future direction of painting. Like the Pont-Aven group, the term Nabis came to encompass a very broad and disparate collection of individually minded artists. Seguin further familiarised O’Conor and Forbes-Robertson with Gauguin’s theories and soon all three were even more fervent in their rejection of the established Impressionist style.

In May 1892, O’Conor decided to make Pont-Aven his home. He remained there until the following March when he decided to visit Seguin and Filiger at Le Pouldu, just twenty-three kilometres from Pont-Aven. Here O’Conor experimented with etching techniques. The exquisite control of line demonstrated in these works is also evident in many of his drawings. The predominant subject matter of these prints was the harsh, rugged landscape around Le Pouldu which, due to its proximity to the Atlantic, was considerably wilder in appearance than Pont-Aven,. The same spontaneity apparent in O’Conor’s landscapes of the period is evident in these etchings. This was a prolific period for the artist. Of the forty or so etchings by O’Conor, sixteen are dated 1893 whilst many of his undated graphics also appear to originate from that same year.

That autumn the death of O’Conor’s father forced his return to Ireland. As the sole male heir he inherited a considerable estate in Roscommon. This greatly altered his financial circumstances, as the rents from the estate brought him a generous income. Arguably, this financial independence may have given him greater stylistic freedom, as it removed the necessity of producing work specifically designed to sell. These increased means also allowed O’Conor to use better quality materials. Throughout his brief stay in Ireland it is evident that O’Conor was eager to get back to France. He returned to Brittany in the winter of 1893. O’Conor found the area a little too quiet at that time of year for his liking and shortly afterwards he left for Grez-sur-Loing.

The year 1894 witnessed O’Conor’s introduction into a broader artistic circle, notably amongst Parisian painters. In March he exhibited at le Barc de Boutteville on rue Le Peletier. Since 1891 the gallery had organised regular exhibitions by progressive artists using the title Exposition des Peintres Impressionistes et Symbolistes. Works by Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Seguin, Serusier, Denis, Lacombe and Forbes-Robertson hung alongside O’Conor’s paintings. This was the first of three occasions on which O’Conor submitted work to this venue.


O’Conor and Gauguin

It was possibly here that O’Conor finally met Gauguin, who had recently returned from the South Seas. However there is little degree of certainty as to when the two first met. It may well have been at the Barc de Boutteville exhibition. Given O’Conor’s academic interests and his experimentation with aspects of Symbolism, it seems likely that he would have made the effort to search out the leader of the movement if the two were exhibiting in the same place. If O’Conor and Gauguin did not meet at the Barc, one must conclude that they met at Pont-Aven in late April or May of 1894. The first definitive proof that the two were acquainted comes from the fight at Concarneau in late May. The story is worth retelling, if only to counter the rather dry academic impression of the Pont-Aven circle conveyed thus far.

Photograph of an etching by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Effet de Soleil dans un Nuage

Etching. 10 1/4 x 13 1/4 inches. Restrike 1981
Dr. Roy Johnston, Prints Catalogue, Musée de Pont-Aven, number 18

When Gaugin returned to France in 1893, his thirteen-year-old Javanese mistress, Annah, not to mention her pet monkey, accompanied him. They must have been a strange sight in rural nineteenth century. France. On 25 May Gauguin, Seguin, O’Conor and Annah set out on a visit to the port town of Concarneau. Here they met with Jourdan and some lady friends. It was shaping up to be a fine day out until a group of local children began to throw stones at Annah. Seguin took it upon himself to box their ears, whereupon a group of nearby sailors took exception to Seguin’s behaviour. A mêlée ensued. The artists acquitted themselves well enough but were outnumbered by the maritime contingent, who eventually beat Gauguin to the ground and broke his ankle. Subsequent legal efforts on Gauguin’s part to extract financial compensation from the sailors proved unsuccessful. Unfortunately the documentation from the court case has not survived so it is impossible to gauge the actual extent of O’Conor’s involvement in the fight.

During Gauguin’s stay at Pont Aven, he and O’Conor rapidly became firm friends. A letter from Gauguin to William Molard dated September 1894 details the Frenchman’s plans to set to sea that December accompanied by “Seguin and an Irishman” This undoubtedly refers to O’Conor, although the journey was one which Gauguin was to travel alone. Further proof of their friendship is evidenced by the presentation of a monotype, The Angelus in Brittany, which Gauguin made to O’Conor. On it was written “for my friend O’Conor, one man of Samoa. P. Gauguin 1894” O’Conor left Pont-Aven before the end of 1894 and was in Grez again by December. In February, Gauguin held a sale at the Hotel Drouot in a final attempt to raise funds for his travels. Gauguin left Paris for the South Seas in June 1895.

O’Conor’s friend, the art critic, Clive Bell later wrote of O’Conor’s friendship with Gauguin as “ the great event in O’Conor’s life.” Gauguin was an enigmatic figure whose magnetism greatly attracted O’Conor. The Frenchman’s stay at Pont-Aven had been greatly disrupted by the fight, which had left him physically incapable of painting. His influence over O’Conor was therefore limited to an advisory role. O’Conor’s style seems to have been discernibly effected by his proximity to Gauguin. This change in style is clearly reflected in the landscapes La Ferme de Lezaven, Finistere , and L’Approche de Lezaven . These works show a shift away from the increasingly stylised zebriste technique. In their execution, they are less painterly than many of the previous Pont-Aven landscapes. The application of paint is far thinner than usual in O’Conor’s work up to this point. And far greater use of the brush is evident. The influence of Gauguin is especially apparent in L’Approche de Lezaven . Whilst the application of colour in La Ferme de Lezaven hints at its evolution from O’Conor’s previous zebriste landscapes, L’Approche de Lezaven pays no deference at all to these works. Johnston writes: “in this painting O’Conor comes closest to Gauguin’s style, both in terms of his colour range and in the way in which he has introduced many of the pictorial principles favoured by the School of Pont-Aven.”


An Exile in Rochefort-en-Terre


Gauguin’s departure appears to have had quite an effect on O’Conor. It led to the gradual fragmentation of the Synthesist group. Their Messiah, Gauguin, had been and gone. O’Conor appears to have sought solitude in the aftermath of Gauguin’s departure. In 1895 O’Conor took up residence in Rochefort-en-Terre. In contrast to the Pont-Aven years, the period at Rochefort from December 1895 to January 1899 appears to have been one of reflection and retreat. O’Conor did not exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants between September 1895 and 1903 and no known paintings can be categorically identified as having been produced at Rochefort. However, he did visit Pont-Aven during this period, and is known to have painted there.

Johnston argues that the similarities between his Vue de Pont-Aven, 1899, and his Gauguinesque landscapes of 1894 point to a very small output during this time, as the intervening five years had produced no stylistic innovation in O’Conor’s work. In the past, this perceived void might have tempted occasional opportunistic cataloguing of works, which were, on stylistic grounds, difficult to fit into a convenient slot. This is not to dismiss the works that O’Conor is known to have produced between December 1895 and January 1899. Indeed the Rochefort years must be regarded as a period of intense creativity. Although living as a semi-recluse, removed from his familiar world, there is no doubt that he continued to produce works of genius during this sojourn. The Rochefort years resulted in some of the most powerful paintings of his career.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Les Récif, detail

The series of seascape paintings of 1897 and 1898 exemplify both the creativity and the experimentation which characterised O’Conor’s years at Rochefort. The series features approximately 24 works painted off the coastline near Pont-Aven. Although there are distinctive stylistic differences between some of the works, at their best, they are deeply expressive. Most of the series contrasts the cool, lush, creamy foam of crashing waves against the hot, vivid and spectacular colouring of red rocks and reefs. The seas off this coastline tend to be turbulent, showcasing the interplay of swirling sea and motionless foreshore. The horizon line is relatively high, diminishing the importance of the sky and thus concentrating the viewer’s attention on the relationship between sea and shore.

In 1899 O’Conor moved back from Rochefort-en-Terre to Pont-Aven. Despite his curtailed output during the previous four years, his reputation appears to have grown. His close association with Gauguin can have done little harm to his standing as an avant-garde artist. It was Gauguin’s own dealer, George Chaudet, who facilitated the transport of O’Conor’s work to Brussels, following O’Conor’s invitation to exhibit there by the Libre Esthétique, formerly known as Les XX. The group were essentially the Belgian equivalent of the Salon des Indépendants, although they were more selective in the quality of the work they exhibited. It was therefore more prestigious than the Salon. A showing at the Libre Esthétique confirmed the recognition of O’Conor as an artist of importance outside of France. Les XX were also semi official, which meant that work chosen by the group was exhibited in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. This served to bring the work of avant-garde artists to the attention of a wider audience. In Brussels O’Conor exhibited along side the likes of Denis, Ensor, Maillot, Ranson and Van Rysselberghe. The work O’Conor exhibited here received mixed reviews. One critic referred to his garish use of colour, whilst another praised the “beautiful light” used in his landscapes. Despite some negative comment, the overall reception of his work must have been positive as he was invited to exhibit with the group again in 1905, an exhibition at which his work was favourably received.


Return to Pont-Aven


His return to Pont-Aven brought O’Conor back into direct contact with many of the friends he had previously made in the town, notably Seguin and Forbes Robertson. He remained based at Pont-Aven until 1904 when he moved to Paris. During the first half of this stay at Pont-Aven landscapes were O’Conor’s main subject matter. More interior-based subjects, namely portraits and still life, gradually succeeded this preference for the outdoors.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

A Breton Interior, detail

O’Conor’s work at the turn of the century was characterised by an increased formality. Works such as Une Jeune Bretonne and The Laughing Girl show a shift towards a more conservative, naturalistic style. Their inspiration stems more from O’Conor’s training as an artist than the unique, expressionist feel, which he had developed since his college days. However, the later portraits of Breton women do use subtle zebriste colouring schemes.


Paris and the Later Years


Between 1904 and his death in 1940, O’Conor lived the greater part of his years in Paris. The single most interesting aspect of the work he produced during this period is its wholesale rejection of the “isms” for which this era in painting, and the arts in general, is best remembered. The innovations of Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism held little wonder for O’Conor. Admittedly, he had never been a painter who wholeheartedly adopted the latest avant-garde trend but hitherto he had experimented at the periphery of emergent styles, adapting certain aspects of contemporary movements to his own ends. Conversely, in Paris he continued to paint in the more naturalistic, realistic style that he had developed during his final years at Pont-Aven.

O’Conor’s output during the first half of his life shows the influence of contemporary artists on his work. The Impressionists, the Pointillists, Van Gogh, Pisarro, Gaugin; the influence is clearly discernable. At that time O’Conor was interested in innovation in painting and his work developed accordingly. In contrast, the output of the Paris years is unified in its rejection of contemporary developments. The realistic nature and interior subject matter of these years stand in marked contrast to the expressionistic landscapes and seascapes of his younger days. O’Conor was based in a Montparnasse studio at 102 rue du Cherche-Midi. The studio itself had a considerable influence on his painting. His ceramic collection, small library and incidental furniture occur frequently in his still lifes, whilst the location of the studio window influenced the composition of many works. For O’Conor, the studio was a place of solitude and retreat. He rarely admitted outsiders to this inner sanctum.

Photograph of a drawing by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Girl Reading in the Studio

Charcoal on paper, 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches. Stamped atelier O’Conor
Provenance: Studio Sale, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 1956
Exhibited: Milmo-Penny Fine Art, June 1991

Away from the studio, O’Conor greatly enjoyed Parisian café life. Between 1906 and the outbreak of the First World War, he became acquainted with a circle of Anglo-Americans who often gathered upstairs at the Chat Blanc. The group consisted of painters, sculptors, writers and their acquaintances. At the Chat Blanc they debated and discussed long into the night, principally on art, painting and literature, subjects which were dear to O’Conor’s heart. His erudition was well regarded in these circles although the painter’s forceful opinions won him friends and enemies alike. O’Conor decried Whistler, Sargent, Carrier and Cottet, all painters favoured by the Anglo-American circle and extolled the virtues of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Bonnard, Vuillard and Cézanne. Amongst the strongest friendships he made here were those with the young English art critic, Clive Bell and the Canadian artist and bon viveur, James Morrice. He also became acquainted with the Bloomsbury set, most notably with Roger Fry. The fine young English artist, Matthew Smith, became a disciple.

The importance of O’Conor’s role in the Post-Impressionist movement was gradually becoming more widely recognised. Undoubtedly, the intensity of his friendship with Gauguin helped to promote his reputation. The pattern of events in the early years in Paris demonstrates O’Conor’s increased renown. In 1904 Hugh Lane invited him to show at an exhibition of Irish art in London, to which he submitted Une Jeune Bretonne. In 1905 the celebrated Russian collector of modern French painting, Ivan Morosov, purchased one of O’Conor’s works from the Salon des Indépendants.

In Pierre Girieud’s 1906 painting, Homage to Gauguin, O’Conor is portrayed at a table beside Gauguin and a number of other Synthesists. The portrayal of O’Conor amongst such exalted company clearly demonstrates an awareness of O’Conor’s importance amongst the next generation of modern painters. In that same year he served as a member of the selection jury for the Salon d’Automne, a task he did not enjoy. Despite this, in 1909 he was elected joint Vice President of the Salon.

Stylistically, the greatest influence on O’Conor before the outbreak of the war, were the Intimists, Bonnard and Vuillard. Of the two, Bonnard was the more influential. O’Conor is known to have appreciated his work, which formed a part of the Irishman’s private collection of paintings The Intimists studied life at close quarters, exactly what O’Conor sought to do in his own paintings at that time. Lady in a Summer Hat is a paradigm of O’Conor’s style at the height of his Intimist phase. Cézanne’s influence is also apparent in the work. O’Conor’s recognition of the importance of Cézanne came long before his greatness was generally acknowledged. From his earliest days in France, O’Conor had possessed this ability to recognise genuine artistic genius in others, regardless of the esteem in which they were generally held at that time.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Lady in a Summer Hat

detail - courtesy of deVeres Art Auctions

In 1910 O’Conor received the proceeds from the sale of his lands under the 1903 Wyndham Land Act. This considerably altered his financial situation. He invested heavily and successfully in the New York stock exchange with the proceeds. This newfound wealth enabled him to travel more extensively than he had previously done. That same year he decided to travel to Italy to study the works of the Italian masters at close hand. He appears to have travelled alone, indicative of his increased urge for quietude and solace. However, on his return he apparently told Clive Bell that he had gazed at the paintings until he felt lonely. In 1912 he visited Spain. The following year was spent in the south of France at the small town of Cassis, near Marseilles. At Cassis he seems to have discovered a new lease of life. The influence of Bonnard is still apparent although there is a subdued Fauvism about these paintings.

Compositions such as the various versions of Le Cap Canaille show O’Conor’s interpretation of the vivid light of the Mediterranean. The works are spontaneous in appearance and full of vitality. O’Conor seems to have been pleased with the paintings as he submitted them to the Salon des Indépendants on his return to Paris that autumn. His usual practice was to wait several years between the execution of a work and its submission. This return to landscape painting appears to have revitalised O’Conor as an artist. However, the onset of the First World War and the restrictions it imposed on travel prevented his return to the idiom for the next four years. Once back in Paris O’Conor returned to his interior subject matter again.

Roderic O’Conor turned sixty in 1920, his output decreasing gradually with age. During the 1920’s he became loosely affiliated with the Ecole de Paris, a group of foreign artists painting in Paris between the two World Wars. O’Conor began to devote more time to pursuits other than painting, notably reading and increasing his private collection of paintings, a collection which was already considerable.

As mentioned above O’Conor’s Parisian work lacks the continuous innovation that characterised the Pont Aven period. Exactly what brought about such a change in O’Conor’s work is difficult to say. However, it should be remembered that there were many differences between the O’Conor of the 1890's and the man who took up residence in Montparnasse in 1904. He was in his mid-forties by the time he moved to Paris. It is not unlikely that some of the exuberance and energy of youth had ebbed since his first arrival in Brittany. Gauguin’s circle, which had informed so much of his earlier work, had broken up. Gauguin himself had died in 1903. The revenues from the estates in Roscommon continued to keep him financially secure. Perhaps most importantly, O’Conor had secured a reputation for himself as a painter, exhibiting internationally. The hunger for recognition must be seen as a major motivation for artists. Once this recognition is secured it is difficult for the painter to set about work with the same intensity. This perhaps goes some way to explaining O’Conor’s apparent rejection of new artistic movements, his increasing reputation sating his desire for constant innovation.

By the beginning of the 1930's O’Conor’s health had begun to decline. In the summer of 1932 he took a holiday to Chailly-en-Biere with his long-term mistress Renée Honta. The following year, they bought a house at Nueil-sur-Layon in the Loire valley and were married in Paris that October. During 1934 and 1935 the couple lived in Torremolinos, where O’Conor again began to paint landscapes in a style which was more abrupt than that of the Cassis period. However, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War forced O’Conor and his wife back to France. There they lived a quiet life at Nueil-sur-Layon in the years leading up to O’Conor’s peaceful death in their house on the 18th of March 1940.

Dominic Milmo-Penny and Daniel Fennelly

May 2001

Roderic O'Conor: Brittany
Roderic O'Conor: Paris
Roderic O'Conor: Flowers


Chronology


1860 Milton, Co. Roscommon, Ireland
1865 Dublin, 23 Waltham Terrace, Blackrock
1867 Dublin, 17 Sandymount Road, Sandymount
1869 Dublin, 79 Wellington Road, Ballsbridge
1872 Dublin, 9, Morehampton Road, Ballsbridge
1873 Ampleforth College, Yorkshire
1877 Dublin, 88 Pembroke Road, Ballsbridge
1879 Dublin, Metropolitan School of Art
1883 Dublin, 25 Pembroke Road, Ballsbridge
1883 Antwerp, Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts
1885 Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy
1886 Paris, Atelier Carolus Duran
1887 Pont-Aven 1890 Grez-sur-Loing
1891 London 1892 Pont-Aven, Brittany
1893 Le Pouldu, Brittany
1894 Pont-Aven, Brittany
1895 Rochefort-en-Terre, Brittany
1899 Pont-Aven, Brittany
1902 Montigny-sur-Loing
1903 Pont-Aven, Brittany
1904 Paris, 102 rue du Cherche-Midi
1910 Italy
1912 Spain
1913 Cassis, Bouche de Rhone
1933 Nueil-sur-Layon, Maine-et-Loire
1934 Spain, Torremolinas
1935 Torremolinas, Paris and Nueil
1940 Nueil-sur-Layon
 

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