Roderic O’Conor and the moderns

The first exhibition for thirty years on Roderic O'Conor, Ireland's post-impressionist

 “The Farm at Lezaven, Finistère”, 1894, photo © National Gallery of Ireland. All works by Roderic O’Conor

Van Gogh never made it to Gauguin’s artist colony in Pont-Aven, Brittany. He wrote that he was “a little bit afraid of Pont-Aven, there are so many people there.” But he was in correspondence with the Pont-Aven artists: Gauguin had taken Émile Bernard’s Breton Women in a Meadow to Arles to place in front of van Gogh, who, reciprocating, sent drawings and paintings to Brittany. When van Gogh died, half the letters of condolence to his family were from artists.

“Field of Corn, Pont-Aven”, 1892 © Ulster Museum Belfast

The artists had started coming in the 1860s, when the railway line to Quimper was opened. You could live cheaply there: room and board at the reputedly unruly Pension Gloanec was 75 francs a month. Roderic O’Conor, from Roscommon, Ireland, had seen van Gogh’s work in 1890, in Theo van Gogh’s flat, a memorial show. He arrived in Pont-Aven in 1891, into the middle of this French avant-garde, absorbing their influences and becoming a full-on post-Impressionist long before any English-speaking artist ought to have done. The exhibition at the Irish National Gallery, the first of his work for 30 years, puts O’Conor’s work beside his friends and influences.

“Breton Peasant Woman Knitting” (private collection, image courtesy of Browse & Darby, Ltd, London)

The Swiss artist Cuno Amiet described him as a man schooled in the Old Masters: “I thought, aha, I have found an Impressionist. But . . . I realised a man as intelligent and open as he was could not paint the way he did as a joke.” Both O’Conor and Amiet started using rhythmic stripes of paint, being mocked by Mortimer Menpes as the “Stripists”. When Gauguin returned from Tahiti, in 1894, they became friends. O’Conor was there (along with other artists and their various girlfriends) when Gauguin, brawling with fishermen, broke his ankle; he’s supposed to have waded into the fight on Gauguin’s side. Gauguin asked him to join him in Tahiti; O’Conor declined.

“Self-portrait”, 1903, photo © National Gallery of Ireland

He was caricatured by Somerset Maugham as the artist Clutton in Of Human Bondage: “He thinks he’s a genius, but he isn’t. He’s too lazy, for one thing.” O’Conor really did not have to work hard: he was the heir to an estate in Ireland and unlike some of his friends lived quite comfortably. (Amiet at one point had to go back to Switzerland, fleeing his debts.) The artists’ colony broke up after Gauguin’s death. O’Conor moved to Paris, and in his later years exhibited only rarely. He died in 1940.

Above: “The Glade”, 1892 ©Museum of Modern Art / Scala

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