Acquired from the artist in Pont-Aven by M. Jean leCorronc, and thence by descent to his daughter;
Sale, Paris, Laurin, Guilloux, Buffetaud, Tailleur, Succession de Mlle. Marcelle leCorronc, 30 October 1995, lot 67, whence purchased by the present owner
Pont-Aven, Musée de Pont - Aven, Roderic O'Conor, 1860 - 1940, 1984, no.5 (illustrated in the catalogue);
Limerick, Hunt Museum, Roderic O'Conor - Shades of a Master, 2003, no.5 as Portrait of a sailor, illustrated in the catalogue.
Roy Johnston, Roderic O'Conor,1860-1940, London, 1985, p.43, illustrated;
Jonathan Benington, Roderic O'Conor, a Biography with a Catalogue of his Work, Dublin, 1992, no.13 as Portrait of a sailor.
O'Conor probably painted this strong, well drawn and volumetric portrait of an elderly Breton man in 1887 at Pont-Aven in Brittany within a year of his arrival in Paris from Dublin late in the summer or early autumn of 1886. Paris was then firmly established as the centre of the art world and the city attracted many talented and ambitious young artists who flocked there from almost every country in the western world. In the summer many of them made their way to one of the several artists colonies in rural France and Pont-Aven with its celtic links had become particularly well known in Irish art circles. Aloysius O'Kelly, Stanhope Forbes and Nathaniel Hill all exhibited paintings with Brittany themes in the Royal Hibernian Academy's annual exhibition of 1885.
The confirming evidence of an O'Conor visit to Pont-Aven as early as 1887 is contained in a letter written by the English painter J. Milner-Kite to O'Conor's widow shortly after her husband's death in 1940. Kite, who knew O'Conor at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp where both men had been students, recalled that he went to Pont-Aven in 1887 and that O'Conor ‘arrived about the same time’. His letter also mentions specifically that O'Conor was then painting portraits of elderly Bretons described as being ‘very strong but still under the influence of Carolus Duran’. The Carolus Duran referred to was a well known and fashionable portrait painter in Paris and a rather flamboyant figure who had been a friend of Manet. He was an accredited teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts and he also ran a private atelier on the Boulevard Montparnasse in which he offered free tuition, principally to cater for the young international artists who had made the pilgrimage to Paris and were keen to develop their painting skills. Carolus Duran's studio had also been the choice of earlier Irish artists who had gone to Paris, including Frank O'Meara, Vincent Gernon, Norman Garstin and Helen Trevor. O'Conor's approach to the painting of this portrait is not in any way a pastiche of Duran's style whose teaching methods encouraged directness in painting without any preliminary drawing. Duran praised Velasquez but also encouraged his students to develop their own style and gave quite different advice to each of his students to help them them achieve this.
The head of this elderly man has quite a rugged appearance, probably keeping in character with his personality and occupation. This was accomplished through a steady build-up of opaque layers of oil paint applied with the palette knife and brush in combination. The incident light which falls across the forehead makes a transition through the eyes to the cheek and down through the man's grey beard revealing a remarkable degree of control and observation by O'Conor. The manipulation of this light on the head and facial features allied to the soundness of drawing throughout results in a strong and convincing sense of volume and three-dimensionality. Although the influence of Duran's teaching is evident in this early work, O'Conor's approach to this portrait also draws on his knowledge of the traditions of Northern European and Flemish painting. As a student in Antwerp he would have easy access to the Antwerp Museum's collection which was then housed on the first floor of the Academy building. There it was possible to study and work directly from paintings by Rubens, Jordaens, Rembrandt and van Dyck and O'Conor seems to have learned from their paintings how best to manipulate and control light in his own work.
This portrait is a companion work to a similarly composed portrait Breton Girl, executed circa 1887 (sold in these rooms on 13 May 2005, lot 64. Both paintings were acquired by their original owner Monsieur Jean leCorronc directly from the artist in Pont-Aven. leCorronc was a frequent visitor to the town before taking up permanent residence there in 1904. The leCorronc collection expanded over the years and included many works of high quality which were representative of the best work by the School of Pont-Aven artists. The collection remained in the family through inheritance before coming before the public at auction in Paris in 1995.
This portrait, originally dated circa 1891 in the first retrospective exhibition of the work of Roderic O'Conor (Musée de Pont-Aven,1984), is now thought to be an earlier work for reasons given above and a revised date to circa 1887 is more appropriate.
Roy Johnston Ph.D.
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