In 1898, following a summer visit to his old seaside haunt of Le Pouldu, O'Conor embarked on what would become his most cohesive and extensive body of work, a series of Breton seascapes that would eventually comprise at least 30 oil paintings plus a number of gouaches and drawings. Rocks and Foam, St Guénolé is one of the largest and most dramatic of the series, its vivid hues and impetuous brushwork conveying the impression of a recently painted canvas, inconsistent with its actual age of 110 years. A mental adjustment is required to view the picture with 19th-century eyes. Doing so makes us realise that it defies comparison not only with any work by O'Conor's English-speaking contemporaries, but also with the vast majority of works by his French ones.
For his choice of subject matter in this series O'Conor took inspiration from Monet's Belle-Isle seascapes of 1886, whilst the proto-fauve style he adopted was derived from Gauguin's flattening of pictorial space and use of exotic colours in his 1889-91 renditions of the Breton coastline. O'Conor's series continued into 1899, when he took up residence once again in Pont-Aven. He used the town as a base, whilst scouring the Finistère coastline for motifs that evinced a romantic aura owing to their remoteness, their ruggedness and their propensity to gales, alighting first at the fishing port of St Guénolé and, later in the summer, on the island of Belle-Isle. The resultant paintings, distinguished by their remarkably bold, intense colours and energetic handling of paint, constituted a creative outpouring that collectively reaffirmed O'Conor's avant garde credentials. He raised his game, doing so at a critical point in his career bearing in mind that he had just spent three years in remote central Brittany, isolated from fellow artists and friends.
The Irishman's close friend, the artist Armand Seguin was suitably impressed and, on 15 May 1899, wrote urging him to exhibit the entire series:
'... I fully approve of your change of scenery. I know you have 'gone to hell', putting up in a hotel next to a lighthouse with two million candlepower.... Your art will benefit from this move, in any case you must have had a wonderful show this month if the storms in Paris were anything to go by.... What particularly pleases me, and in which I am in complete agreement with you, is that you worked hard on these paintings and put your all into them.... I envy your love and don't doubt your great success at your chosen time.... Your exhibition would stand out well next to all the rubbish we see around us'.
The lighthouse to which Seguin refers was the Eckmühl Lighthouse, located at the very end of the Penmarc'h headland and just one and a half miles south of St Guénolé. The 65 metre structure was erected two years prior to O'Conor's visit, the reference to the powerful light implying that he was given a tour of this feat of engineering, complete with panoramic views of the adjacent rock-strewn and storm-battered coastline. Progressing northwards to St Guénolé, at the extreme south-west tip of Brittany, he would have been struck, like so many visitors before him, by the evil-looking rocks protecting the port. In Chaucer's 'Franklin's Tale', lady Dorigen invoked her husband's safe return from England by wishing that "alle thise rokkes blake / Were sonken into helle!" And in 1892, just seven years before O'Conor's visit, an American female traveller declared that: "I never saw anything so superb! Surfs, and storm surfs at that, I have seen... but never anything to compare with the fury of the monster waves that lash the rocks at St Guénolé. The world here is full of rocks – a chaos of strangely-contorted fragments piled high on each other" (New York Times, 17 January 1892).
O'Conor seems to have extended his visit to St Guénolé from April or May 1899 until early July. The elemental rock- and sea-scape with which he was surrounded inspired many pictures, but he was particularly struck by a granite promontory that he painted at least four times, picking it out in bright orange or crimson brushstrokes that acted as complementary colours next to the blue and green of the sea. White surf invariably broke around the extended finger of rock, like licking flames.
Rocks and Foam, St Guénolé is the largest of the four versions and also the one that gives greatest prominence to the foreground shelf of rocks, thereby restricting the sea to a narrow gash of bottle green (two of the other versions are illustrated as figures 2 and 3 whilst the smallest of the four versions was sold in these rooms, 13th May 2005, lot 39). O'Conor took full advantage of the higher viewpoint by giving full reign to a near-abstract rendition of the ground on which he was standing – the freely brushed yellows, oranges, reds and pinks, interspersed with patches of bare canvas, conveying a sensation of molten lava, in contrast to the more solidly rendered promontory. The crimson diagonals in the foreground lead the eye in, echoing the angle of the promontory and the parallel brushstrokes that descend towards its tip. Sunlight floods the scene, reflecting back off the rocks but barely penetrating the turgid waters, which for once are calm enough not to swathe the point in spume.
There is latent fury here, and O'Conor shows no restraint in matching the uncouth nature of his subject with the raw energy of his scumblings, stainings and ribbons of pigment. He must have sensed that the picture was too ahead of its time to place on public exhibition, for the only one of the four versions that he did eventually exhibit was Red rocks and foam – Brittany, shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1903 (fig.3). The execution of Red rocks and foam – Brittany was, however, to a much more conventional standard of finish than that seen in the present work.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale