The Osbornes had suffered a tragedy when the artist’s sister Violet died giving birth to her daughter in Canada in April 1893. Osborne returned home from his working visits to England to assist his elderly parents looking after the baby, also named Violet, at their family home at 5 Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines. While continuing to work at his career as a landscapist and portraitist, over the next few years he painted and drew many pictures of Violet as she grew from infancy to childhood, in the house and garden.
In a letter to his brother-in-law William Stockley in February 1895, Osborne wrote that the picture:
'was painted in the backroom looking towards the drawing room window. The folding doors are open & through them you see window in sunlight. White cloth on the table, breakfast things and jar of flowers. Baby seated on her own high chair. The best picture I think I have done.' 2
The figure of the artist’s father, William Osborne (1823-1901), a successful animal painter (see lot 67), is seen standing against the light at the far end of the table, while that of his mother Annie Jane (1825-c.1910)3 is shown attentively looking after the baby Violet, then about 1½ years old, who is seated at a high chair, at the side of the table. Annie looks at the infant, while she (Violet) looks out at the viewer with interest.
Sheehy suggests that 'the painter himself is hinted at by his plate, napkin and empty chair in the foreground'.4 (Yet this place could also be symbolic of other members of the Osborne family: of his departed sister Violet, or of his brother Charles, who was working as a clergyman in England). The large scale of the chair and the dramatic perspective of the table give a slightly photographic impression; the table leads back to the curtains and window, and bright sunlight, reminiscent of certain Impressionist interiors, for example The Dinner, 1868-69 (Buhrle Collection, Zurich), and Le Dejeuner, 1868 (Städal Museum, Zurich) by Monet, showing family groups around the table, the latter with light streaming in. To the right of the composition another room can be glimpsed, with a picture on the wall.
As Sheehy writes:
'The picture is painted with a… sombre palette- dark browns and greens of curtains, walls, and woodwork, enlivened by the sunlit window, the table-cloth in the foreground and touches of bright colour, acid green of hellebores in the jug, white highlights on silver and china, a toy merely hinted at with pure touches of red, yellow and blue on the table.'5
These colours are subtly ‘echoed’ by the red and blue stripes of the carpet on the right. The painting is executed with great fluidity, some of the forms having blurred edges, to give a living quality.
Osborne made a drawing after the painting in February 1895 (NGI),6 and sent it to William Stockley informing him that he was sending the painting to the Royal Academy in London. Exhibited there in 1895, it was illustrated in Academy Notes. It was also shown at the Dublin Art Club that year. The artist’s mother Annie loaned the picture to the Memorial Exhibition for Osborne, held at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin in Winter 1903-1904. At the Breakfast Table had great emotional importance for the Osbornes, and remained in family collections for almost one hundred years. It was included in the large Osborne Retrospective exhibition, under its original title Portraits, at the National Gallery of Ireland in 1983.
1 Osborne’s letter to W. Stockley, Feb. 1895, quoted by A. Le Harival and Michael Wynne, in National Gallery of Ireland Acquisitions, 1984-1986, 1986, p. 57; and in J. Sheehy, Irish Paintings, Gorry Gallery, 1994, p.7.
2 Osborne’s letter to W. Stockley, quoted by Le Harival and Wynne, 1986, p. 57 and Sheehy, 1994, p.7. See also C. Kennedy, in America’s Eye, 1996, p. 11.
3 An inscription on the drawing amends the identity of the woman in the picture from ‘Mrs. Osborne’ to ‘Nurse’. However, it seems likely that she is the former, as her face and hair resemble those in other pictures of Osborne’s mother.
4 J. Sheehy, 'At the Breakfast Table' in Irish Paintings, Gorry Gallery, 1994, p.7.
5 J. Sheehy, op. cit., p.7.
6 National Gallery of Ireland, cat. no. 19, 206. Illustrated in A. Le Harival and M. Wynne, 1986, p. 57.
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