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Roderic O'Conor: Flower Paintings

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Nature Morte au Vase de Fleurs

Oil on canvas, 18 x 21½ inches. Stamped verso atelier O’Conor

Provenance: Studio Sale, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 1956;
Private Collection, France;
Georges Blache, Hotel Rameau, Versailles;
Felix Volmark, Paris;
Thierry Martin, Brest;
Exhibited: Milmo-Penny Fine Art, June 1990;
Private View,
Milmo-Penny Fine Art, May 2001

This painting is a good example of O’Conor’s expressive use of oil paint. The rich, vibrant pigmentation demonstrates how his reputation as a colourist was established. Painted about 1920, the staging is carefully arranged to gain maximum benefit from the morning light, which streams through the studio window. The bright reds and yellows are brilliantly set off by the blue tablecloth, and the white porcelain of the vase. The subdued colouring of the background acts as a foil for the hot colours of the roses. The loose impressionistic treatment of the porcelain decoration is typical of his work of this period. The manner in which he paints the flowers is comparable to Paul Cezanne’s Flowers in a Vase, which will be discussed below. The motif of still life objects arranged on a roughly crumpled tablecloth appears frequently in the work of Cezanne. Close examination indicates that each of the paint layers have mixed with each other, which suggests that the painting was completed in one session.

It is well established that O’Conor was swayed in his landscape and genre work by artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne. However, his development as a still life painter has not had the same degree of scrutiny. It has been suggested that, in this field, he was inclined to follow his contemporaries working in Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century. However, it now appears that his foundations are deeply rooted in traditional techniques, and that his style has its foundations in the work of a number of late 19th century painters, and a succession of preceding masters. The influences of artists as diverse as Memling, Seghers, Chardin and Manet are detectable, directly or indirectly.

Photograph of a Roman fresco painting

Fruit in a Glass Bowl: (1st century BC): Roman fresco, Pompeii,

According to Pliny, the art of still life painting was highly developed as far back as the 5th century BC. In his ‘Naturalis Historia’, he describes a competition between two great painters of ancient Greece, Zeuxis of Heraclea, and Parrhasius of Ephesus, in which Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes. It was so well painted that the birds tried to eat the fruit. The ancient Egyptians decorated the interiors of their tombs with paintings of fruit and other victuals, in the belief that these would sustain the deceased in the afterlife. The ancient Greeks adorned their pottery with still life paintings of exceptional quality. In the same vein, the Romans laid elaborate mosaics on their floors, and adorned their walls with similar representations in fresco paintings. Apart from allegorical and other subjects, these depict displays of flowers; fish and shellfish; fruit in a glass bowl; plates of bread with jugs of wine and other arrangements of various foods. Occasionally, the paintings look surprisingly modern. However, this has more to do with the subject matter than anything else.

Photograph of a painting by Hans Memling

Hans Memling (1435/40-1494): Flower Still Life, c.1485-1494: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

This perception of modernity is also noticeable in Hans Memling’s vase of flowers, painted about 1490, which is not that far removed from an O’Conor of 1920. The panel was originally part of a double-sided triptych. The recto shows a young man at prayer, which is considered to be one of his finest portraits. However, as Mar Borobia of the Thyssen-Bornemisza explains; the inspiration for Memling’s still life is far removed from modernity: “The still life with flowers on the reverse is one of the first known independent still lifes. This early still life is of a religious nature, however, given that it contains symbols relating to Christ and the Virgin. The pottery vessel, which is maiolica, has the monogram of Christ on the front while the flowers are connected with the Virgin: the lilies allude to her purity, the irises symbolise the figure of Mary as the Queen of the Heavens and her role as Mater Dolorosa during the Passion, while the columbines are associated with the Holy Spirit. The rug on which the jug rests is also an Oriental one. These rugs are generically known as "Memling" rugs.”

Photograph of a painting by Ambrosius Bosschaert

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1543–1614): Flowers in a Vase: National Gallery, London

It was just a little over one hundred years later that artists began to produce work free of the constraints of the religious and allegorical iconography of the previous centuries. The development of the printing press made exotic discoveries from the Orient and the New World available to a wide audience for the first time. By the end of the 16th century, colourful illustrations of birds, fish, seashells, insects, and flowers found their way into the artist’s studios, and the homes of a new collecting class, which led to a new market for richly coloured still life paintings. Amongst the first to pioneer this market was the Flemish artist, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), whose exquisite flowers pieces set a new trend. He was joined by the Dutch painter, Jacques De Gheyn II (1565-1629), who produced similar flower pieces from as early as 1602. Within a decade, they were joined by Ambrosius Bosschaert, and Roelandt Savery (1576–1639), both of whom produced delicately painted works of magnificent quality. Although they operated independently of each other, all four produced elaborate bouquets comprised of a wide variety of specimens. These were made all the more interesting by the inclusion of coloured shells, insects, butterflies, caterpillars, frogs, newts, flies, and other insects. The intention was to remind the viewer of the vulnerability of beauty; a final tribute to the iconography of the preceding centuries. Bosschaert’s Flowers in a Vase, painted in 1614, is a superb example of this type of work. Painted at the height of the inflated market in flower bulbs, the centre piece of this work is the white Semper Augustus tulip, distinguishable by the blood-red flames on the petals. At the time, a single bulb would have cost twenty times as much as this painting. The tulips are arranged with a selection of roses, wallflowers, fritillaries, daffodils, and carnations. These varieties flower at different times of the year, which suggests that the composition was made from individual studies, which Bosschaert would have sketched from life. The precise botanical portrayal of each bloom was a characteristic of this type of painting. Another interesting feature is the finely worked wine glass in which the bouquet is arranged.

Photograph of a painting by Jan Philips van Thielen

Jan Philips van Thielen (1618-1667): Roses and a Tulip in a Glass Vase, c.1650/1660: National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

By the middle of the 17th century, a number of skilled painters had joined their ranks. One of these was the Antwerp painter, Daniel Seghers (1590-1661), whose work is mostly comprised of elaborate garlands of flowers, which often encircled a Madonna, the Holy Family or other religious subjects. However, he occasionally painted simple flower arrangements, usually set in a glass vase. One of his imitators was the Flemish artist, Jan Philips van Thielen, whose exquisite painting, Roses and a Tulip in a Glass Vase, is a very rare example of this latter type. Van Thielen could not have chosen more delicate shades for this simple arrangement, displayed in a glass decanter, which sits on an unadorned shelf. The painting is remarkable for the manner in which the soft light illuminates the flowers. A large brightly coloured tiger moth rests on a lower leaf. At the top right of the arrangement, the camouflage of a dragonfly is betrayed by its bulging eyes as it clings to a stalk. The studio window is reflected in the glass vase, with each pane radiating a different degree of light. The muted colouring of the background ensures that the viewer’s eye is not distracted from the display. Although this adds a slightly modern aspect to the composition, as a precursor to 19th century still life painting, the credit must go to Seghers.

Photograph of a painting by Jean-Simeon Chardin

Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779): Vase of Flowers: National Gallery, Scotland

By the middle of the following century, Jean-Siméon Chardin took the development of flower painting one step further. About the year 1755, he painted Vase of Flowers, which could pass for a Post-Impressionist painting at first glance. It contains all the characteristics and design elements of what remains the standard to this day. The flowers no longer fill the canvas, although they remain the focal point of the painting. The vase, staging and background play equally important roles. The arrangement of the bouquet is informal, and the requirement for botanical precision plays only a minor role. The blue and white of the flowers mirrors that of the porcelain. An important role is given to the lighting of the composition. The single flower to the front of the arrangement is painted in a dazzling white, while the rest of the flowers are lit in a diffused light, which dissipates as it recedes into the background. The studio window is reflected in the glaze of the delft vase, and appears to follow the pattern of the blue decoration. The deep shadow thrown by the vase provides depth and structure to the composition. The muted colouring of the shelf, which merges into the background, is brought to life by a single red carnation, and a small yellow flower which glows like the flame from a candle.

Chardin is a very important link between the great masters of the Golden Age, whose work he studied ardently, and the Impressionists, whose techniques he pre-empted. He broke with the convention whereby the quality of a painting was judged in terms of its smoothness, and invisibility of brush marks. He applied strokes of unmixed colour, side by side, which showed deliberate texture and the marks of his brush. He took ordinary domestic objects, arranged them carefully in simple settings, and painted them purely for the sake of painting. In another work, Basket of Wild Strawberries, painted about 1760, he pre-empts the Pointillists by employing a technique best described by the observations of the French naturalist authors, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, who wrote of the painting in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts: "These two carnations, for example; they are nothing but a scattering of white and blue dots, a kind of sprinkling of silvered enamellings in relief.”

Photograph of a painting by Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet (1832-1883): Pivoines sur Piédouche: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Apart from the observations of a few close associates, Chardin’s revolutionary techniques went unnoticed in his day. It was left to Manet and Cezanne to resurrect them almost one hundred years later. Although not directly associated with the core group, Manet was a central figure in the evolution of Impressionism. He made a particular study of Chardin’s work, whose influence comes to the fore not only in his still lifes, but also in his early figurative work. Manet’s Vase de Pivoines sur Piédouche, painted in 1864, owes a lot to Chardin. When viewed side by side with Chardin’s Vase of Flowers, the first impression is of two very different paintings, due in most part to colouring, a very different vase, and a different flower arrangement. However, when both paintings are analysed, we find that practically every aspect of Chardin’s work discussed above is found in Manet’s peonies. Both works could pass for late 19th century Post-Impressionist paintings.

Photograph of a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919): Spring Bouquet: Fogg Art Museum, Mass. USA

Another interesting work in the development of modern still life painting is Renoir’s canvas of 1866, Spring Bouquet. In this particular canvas, Renoir followed the traditional style as practised by the masters of the 17th and 18th centuries. There are many surprises about the painting, perhaps the fact that it is by Renoir being at the top of the list. Although it looks more traditional than Chardin’s work of 1755, the composition is not as conventional as it first appears. The quality of the lighting suggests that the composition was staged in the open air. A remarkable brilliance radiates from the flowers and the white glaze of the vase. The stone ledge, on which the arrangement is staged, also suggests an outdoor work. The ledge merges into a similarly toned backdrop, an aspect found in many paintings by Chardin. Although Renoir’s painting demonstrates many of the principles of the Impressionists: their quest for naturalism; pure analysis of colours and their relationship to tone; and the effect of light on the object being painted; it lacks the blurred edge of the following decade. However, the painting is a fine example of the young Renoir’s ability to move from style to style overnight, with one painting being as strong as the next.

Photograph of a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919): Still Life with Roses: Fogg Art Museum, Mass. USA

A further example of Renoir’s early versatility is Still Life with Roses, which may have been painted within months of the spring bouquet. This work is painted in a very crisp manner, which is enhanced by the simplicity of the composition. The flowers and foliage, set on a round table, covered in a ruffled tablecloth merge seamlessly with the background. The design departs entirely from the traditional approach which he employed in Spring Bouquet. However, apart from this, the painting relies on traditional techniques for its success. The simple display of white roses and green foliage is arranged in a black glass jug, the starkness of which is set off by the white of the tablecloth. The black vase allows the window to be reflected in clear detail, with each pane delicately worked; a device which we have already seen effectively employed in the Van Thielen painting. The manner in which the tablecloth is painted, and particularly the treatment of the heavy folds, looks back to the Haarlem still life master, Pieter Claesz (c.1597-1660).

Photograph of a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919): Bouquet in a Vase: Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA

By the early 1880’s Renoir had settled into his familiar style, which is all too recognisable. However, before the malaise had set in, a painting from 1878 demonstrates the inventiveness of his youth. Bouquet in a Vase, painted in 1878, is remarkable in a number of ways. The precise brushwork, and careful application of paint, has given way to a vigorous, frenetic, alla prima technique. To depict the vase, the paint is laid on in short strokes applied side by side. This mix of rich, bright colour is merged into the flower arrangement without any abrupt change of colour. The technique employed for the flowers is noticeably different. A range of pinks, reds, blues and greens is mixed wet on wet, and brushed into a high impasto, with an element of dragging from bloom to bloom. The arrangement is shown against a background of dappled tints of the main colours. The use of blue to denote shadow is a technique pioneered by the Impressionists. The shape formed by the flowers mirrors the shape of the vase, in much the same way as the Chardin in Edinburgh. However, the similarities go no further. The painting demonstrates the radical change in style, which had developed over the previous ten years.

Photograph of a painting by Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903): Still Life with Peonies and Mock Orange: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

This change in method is also evident in Pissarro’s Still Life with Peonies and Mock Orange, which shows a similar use of energetic brushwork, subdued light, and a heightened emphasis on colour and texture. In common with the Renoir’s Bouquet in a Vase, we find a comparable merging of colour between the vase and the flowers. The arrangement is also shown against a mottled background, composed of lighter tints of the same palette. Similarly, no attempt is made to portray the flowers with any degree of accuracy, although the varieties are easily identifiable. Painted in 1877, when Pissarro was living in Pontoise, the flowers probably came from Pissarro’s own garden. The strong reds of the peonies dominate the arrangement, which also includes iris and honeysuckle.

Photograph of a painting by Paul Cezanne

Paul Cezanne (1839–1906): Flowers in a Vase: Private collection

Cezanne was another artist who occasionally departed from his normal manner, as is evident in the two paintings illustrated here. Flowers in a Vase, for example, looks more like an 1880s Manet. However, this 1872 canvas shows the effectiveness of setting bright colour against a black background. There is a wonderful mixture of pinks, bright reds, brilliant whites, and vibrant greens, all of which are applied with superb control and balance. The optical effects of the flower stems in a water filled glass vase are represented by a partially mixed fusion of blues, greens and whites. A narrow shaft of yellow light breaks through the glass vase with dramatic effect, and splits the black shadow, which fills the entire background. The spectacle is heightened by the narrow band of subdued light in the foreground. Cezanne used a heavily loaded brush in order to create high ridges of paint in which he represents the flower blooms in a sculpted fashion.

Photograph of a painting by Paul Cezanne

Paul Cezanne (1839–1906): Dahlias: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The same vigorous application of paint is also noticeable in Cezanne’s Dahlias another work in which he makes a fundamental departure from his usual manner. Apart from the vigorous brushwork of this 1875 canvas, there are a number of other similarities to Renoir’s Bouquet in a Vase. There is no fine detail in the flowers or the ceramics, which show nothing more than the basic pattern. The lighting is subdued; there are no highlights reflected off the glaze, and the shadow thrown by the vase plays only a minor role. There is no decoration of the shelf on which the vase is placed, and the colours of the vase are picked up in the background. The objective appears to be a pure exercise in colour. The painting relates in many ways to Pissarro’s Peonies and Mock Orange. Pissarro had encouraged him to lighten his palette and avoid the use of black.

Photograph of a painting by Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903): Peonies: Private collection)

Paul Gauguin’s Peonies is yet another example of a work which is alien to the usual style of the artist. Painted in 1876, just three years after the first Impressionist exhibition, the painting is more in the manner of the Post-Impressionists, and shows no hint of Gauguin’s Synthetist style, which followed in the late 1880s. The painting is as much about light as it is about flowers. Gauguin has arranged the peonies with the white flowers facing the light source, and the pinks facing the viewer. The arrangement is placed at a distance from the window, which subdues the light as is falls in decreasing strength across the composition, the ceramic glaze reflecting the bluish white of the highlights, which gradually reduce to the deep blue black of the shadow area. The shading of the flowers is just as impressive. The tips of the petals are delicately lit at the outer edges, while the inner leaves deepen in an array of shades. The painting is close in design to Renoir’s Still Life with Roses where the white tablecloth takes the place of the music score, which has the same effect of dramatising the blues and lifting the composition.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O'Conor

Roderic O'Conor: Red Roses in a Jug: Bell Gallery, Belfast

It may be that Gauguin’s painting was the inspiration behind Roderic O'Conor's Red Roses in a Jug. O'Conor appears to have reworked Gauguin’s design by replacing the music score with a white napkin. A similar cluster of flowers is arranged in a jar, which is of a similar shape. However, there is always the possibility that the likenesses are coincidental, and it must be borne in mind that the O’Connor was painted about fifty years later. The manner of arranging the flowers, the staging, lighting, and the background are all true to O’Conor’s style. O’Conor’s friendship with Gauguin in Pont-Aven is well documented, but the extent to which Gauguin had any lasting effect on O’Conor’s work is negligible.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Roderic O'Conor: Roses: Carrick Hill Museum, Adelaide, Australia

It is often difficult to date O’Conor’s works accurately. However, on stylistic grounds, this flower piece was probably painted about 1915. Roses appears to have its origins in some of the paintings we have already looked at although is difficult to single out one individual source. The transparent light of the glass vase is comparable to Cezanne's Flowers in a Vase, and the way in which the arrangement sits towards the edge of a round table, covered in a ruffled tablecloth, reminds us of Renoir’s Still Life with Roses. However, the underlying style of the painting has more in common with the work of Manet, as can be seen from the example below.

Photograph of a painting by Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet (1832-1883): Roses in a Glass Vase: Private collection

In many of his works, Manet explored the qualities of diffused light as it passed through the clear glass of a vase, and the prism effect of the glass as it dispersed the colours of the flower stems. He was also intrigued by the distortion of colour caused by water in a vase. As we can see from this example, he also experimented with the effects of light as it left the glass, and the effect that this had on the areas which would otherwise have thrown a dark shadow. These are the same challenges which O’Conor set for himself in this otherwise simple study of a vase of roses.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Roderic O'Conor: Flowers
Oil on artist board,
46 x 38cm. Atelier stamp verso
Lepage trade label verso

Provenance: O’Conor Studio Sale, Paris, Hotel Drouot, 6/7 February 1956;
Crane Kalman Gallery, London;
Rev. Horace Bentley;
Crane Kalman Gallery, London, March 1971;
Mr. B. Shine;
Lad Lane Gallery, Dublin, March 1981;
Private Collection, Dublin

From Ireland and France, Milmo-Penny Fine Art, Dublin, Dec. 2001, no. 6

In his early days, while studying under Carolus-Duran in Paris, O'Conor learned the importance of individual interpretation and expression in the production of art. This philosophy remained at the heart of O’Conor’s work and greatly influenced his development as a painter. This was most apparent during his time spent in Brittany, but it remained a motivating factor throughout his career, and is discernible even in this late flower piece, painted about 1925. In many ways, this study is very close in style and handling to Nature Morte au Vase des Fleurs. The manner in which the flowers are handled is identical in both works. The casual handling of the tablecloth, on which the arrangement is staged, is also similar.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Roderic O’Conor

Roderic O'Conor: Roses Rouge
Oil on board, 46 x 38cm. Atelier O’Conor stamp verso

Provenance: O’Conor Studio Sale, Paris, Hotel Drouot, 6/7 February 1956;
Crane Kalman Gallery, London;
Godolphin Gallery, Dublin;
Private collection, Ireland;
DeVeres Art Auctions, Nov. 2007

The combination of flowers and fruit is a theme that O’Conor repeated many times, especially in his later years. Still life painting allowed him to follow his long established daily routine, without the inconvenience of having to secure a studio model. Most of these compositions were of casual arrangements, assembled with whatever props came to hand, mainly fruit and vegetables from the kitchen, or flowers from the street corner. Painted about 1920, Roses Rouge is one of a small group of works where O’Conor stages his composition directly on a table top, thereby allowing the arrangement to reflect off the polished surface. The light from the studio window is shown in the glaze of the green pot, a typical feature of his work from this period. The geometric pattern created by the bookshelves in the background is another feature which occurs regularly.

O’Conor was highly regarded as a colourist amongst his contemporaries. His rich and distinctive palette consisted of sumptuous reds, blues, yellows and greens. His command of colour allowed him to combine hot pigments with delicate pastel shades without throwing the combinations out of balance. His method was to build up his paintings layer by layer, using a wet on wet technique. In a number of paintings, certain sections were finished with a palette knife, and occasionally the entire painting was worked in this way. Although his paintings give an impression of spontaneity, they were carefully planned. His routine was traditional, beginning with a stained priming coat, followed by a wash drawing, blocking in, underpainting and as many as five final layers. These were usually completed in a single session, perhaps taking no more than a morning’s work.

To an extent, still life painting is something of a leveller. As we have seen above, even amongst the most famous of the Impressionists, it can be difficult to put a name on an unfamiliar painting. In landscape or figurative work, it is often the familiar subject matter that we recognise rather than the artist’s style. This is perhaps where O’Conor’s strength lies. His technique was unique; the end result unmistakeable. He was undoubtedly influenced by many of the greatest painters of the modern age yet he managed to develop a style remote from them all. It was simple and honest style, which progressed through many changes without ever loosing its own distinctive stamp of individuality.

Dominic Milmo-Penny, December 2007

Roderic O'Conor: Brittany
Roderic O'Conor: Paris
Roderic O'Conor: Biography


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