Details & Cataloguing

The Irish Sale


Roderic O'Conor
1860 - 1940
signed l.r.: O'CONOR; also stamped atelier/ O'CONOR on the reverse 
oil on canvas
65.5 by 55cm.; 25¾ by 21½in.
Executed in 1913.
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Sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, Vente O'Conor, 7 February 1956
Roland, Browse & Delbanco, London
Schoneman Galleries, New York, where purchased in the 1960s and thence bequeathed to the present owner's family circa 1989

Catalogue Note

O'Conor painted some of his most dazzling and sensuous landscapes during the summer of 1913 when he was staying in the Villa Marguerite at Cassis, a small yet bustling fishing port on the Bouches du Rhône. It turned out to be one of his most productive seasons, certainly the busiest since 1898-99 when he completed his extensive series of Breton seascapes. Installed in the Midi and with the Fauve painters Henri Manguin and Albert Marquet for company, O'Conor found the rocky indented coastline bathed in Mediterannean sunshine and pulsating with glowing colours irresistible. Indeed, such was their rejuvenating effect on the 52-year old Irishman that he dashed off at least 23 landscapes, encompassing motifs that included the town itself, the bay, the surrounding orchards and pine groves, and the imposing limestone cliffs of Le Cap Canail. He wrote to Clive Bell on 12th October 1913, 'There seems to be very few painters here besides Manguin. Marquet is here en passage. ...  I have been leading a very idle life here but am getting down to work now. The weather is very fine, like summer, but the days are shortening and not much to do in the evening but read. I have a few books fortunately and by going to bed very early manage to get through..' (O'Conor to Clive Bell, 12 October 1913, sent from Villa Marguerite, Cassis (OCCB 10b National Gallery of Ireland)).

As the season progressed, O'Conor increasingly sought out the higher ground away from the sea and the town, in particular the arid plateau climbing to a 394-metre summit at Le Cap Canail. The present work features one of the smaller peaks that lies between the headland and the town, partially screened by fruit trees in blossom and pines. The tall tree on the left has not come into leaf yet, so we may surmise that the time of year is early spring. Using a fairly 'lean' mixture of paint, to which he added only a small amount of medium, O'Conor achieves a scumbled, and in places even encrusted, surface that forms the perfect mirror to the parched landscape in front of him. He resolves the unusual portrait format composition by dividing it into broad horizontal zones of colour, from the red and pink foreground to the yellow, orange and green middle distance, topped by the purple summit and azure sky. Each zone is bounded by edges that form an up arrow, complementing the shape of the mountain. Was O'Conor thinking of Cézanne's beloved Mont St. Victoire when he sought out this opening in the trees that provides such a clear view of the distant crag? The same peak appears in the background of another work of 1913, The Farm, Provence (fig.1, Private Collection) but without taking centre stage as it does here.

The results of O'Conor's visit to Cassis clearly pleased him, for he interrupted his stay in order to make the long journey back to Paris with six canvases destined for submission to that year's Salon d'Automne exhibition. In his review of the show, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire singled O'Conor out for mention (L'Intransigeant, 18 November 2010), describing him as "jealously preserving the tradition handed down to him by Gauguin". We may surmise that Apollinaire detected in the Irishman's landscapes a yearning for the earthly paradise – a feature that he felt grew out of the friendship formed between the two painters in 1894, just a year after Gauguin returned from his first trip to the South Seas. Nor was Apollinaire unaware of the fact that in both painters this ardour for far-flung places was harnessed to an equally ingrained penchant for artistic adventuring.

Appropriately in light of its French credentials, Landscape, Cassis was one of about 15 fine O'Conor paintings handled by the renowned Schoneman Galleries in New York in the 1960s, alongside works by Picasso, Braque, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin and Renoir.

Jonathan Benington

The Irish Sale