In the mid to late 1920s, O'Conor's disregard for the world was arguably at its strongest. Resigned to old age and infirmity, he retreated into the confines of his Paris studio and, working in more or less total isolation, continued to produce still life compositions, female models and self portraits. But whilst the subjects may have been familiar ones, his approach became more uncompromising and more abstract. The layered palette knife technique he developed at the beginning of the decade was now a mode of expression over which he had complete mastery, allowing him to exploit to the full its capacity for creating rich, crumbly textures. This can be seen to great effect in the present work, which belongs to a group of still lifes in which he celebrated the shapes, forms and colours of everyday foodstuffs set amongst white draperies and simple domestic crockery, compare for example with Still life with four apples on a white cloth and Still life with bread (J. Benington, Roderic O'Conor, a Biography with a Catalogue of his Work, Dublin, 1992, pp. 221, 224, nos. 261, 291). In these works the tabletop arrangement was the painter's primary focus, with the background limited to a dark, relatively unmodulated tone that ensures the objects are pushed forward.
In Still life with fruit on a white cloth, the components are a terracotta flask, a plate with bread and grapes, and a compotier laden with apples (two further fruits nestle in the folds of the tablecloth directly in front of the flask). The triangular geometry inherent in the three-part arrangement is subtly disguised and softened by the rhythmic curves of the crockery, the fruit and the tabletop. It is a masterly piece of pictorial stage management, retaining the same sense of a progression through foreground, middle ground and distance that one would expect to find in a landscape. Indeed, in one sense O'Conor's still lifes of the 1920s acted as proxies for landscapes. His massing of hard, soft and perishable materials in the studio echoed (albeit on a miniature scale) the accumulations of rock, soil and verdure in outdoor settings. He wanted to emphasise the fact that still life, just as much as landscape, is able to function as a celebration of nature's bounty.
O'Conor took sensuous pleasure in the shapes and colours of the objects he was depicting (in letters to his mistress, Renée Honta, during the First World War, he thanked her for a packet of butter she sent from the country, and explained how he had temporarily given up meat for a diet of fruit and milk). Using brushes, palette knives and rags, he would coax and cajole his oil paints with the aim of creating a pictorial equivalent for the complexities of tone, colour, texture, light and shade thrown up by these deceptively simple objects. By responding in such a painterly manner to everyday foodstuffs, he was consciously updating a tradition that stretches back to such masters of the genre as Chardin and Velásquez.
The provenance of this picture is unusual. It was one of a relatively small group of works that the artist allowed to leave his studio during his lifetime. The first owner was the wealthy Bostonian painter Francis-Brook Chadwick (1850-1936), one of O'Conor's closest friends in France since the late 1880s. Although Chadwick never applied a rigorous modernist aesthetic in his own work, he faithfully supported and encouraged his avant-garde Irish friend, securing at least five of his paintings for his collection. Amongst them were seminal early works from Gréz and Pont-Aven, including Groupe de peupliers (1886) and L'approche de Lezaven, Pont-Aven (1894). Until the present work was rediscovered in the south of France in 2007, it was not known that Chadwick's loyal patronage extended as far into O'Conor's career as the 1920s.