Roderic O'Conor (1860-1940)
Roderic O'Conor (1860-1940)

Baigneuse à la mer

Roderic O'Conor (1860-1940)
Baigneuse à la mer
stamped with the studio stamp 'atelier/O'CONOR' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
39 ½ x 32 in. (100.4 x 81.3 cm.)
Painted circa 1898-1900.
Hôtel Drouot, Paris, Vente O'Conor, 7 February 1956.
Paris, Robert, December 1970.
with Rutland Gallery, London, December 1970.
David Clarke.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 21 May 1999, lot 283, where purchased by the present owner.
J. Benington, Apollo, 'From Realism to Expressionism: The Early Career of Roderic O'Conor', April 1985, pp. 257, 260, fig. 14.
Exhibition catalogue, Roderic O'Conor 1860-1940, London, Barbican Art Gallery, 1985, p. 76, no. 30, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Roderic O'Conor, A Selection of his best works in Ireland, Dublin, Godolphin Art Gallery, 1978, pp. 6, 9, no. 4, as 'Nude in Stormy Seascape', illustrated.
J. Benington, Roderic O'Conor: A Biography, with a Catalogue of his Work, Blackrock, 1992, pp. 83, 200, no. 87, pl. 29, as 'Nude against stormy seascape'.
Dublin, Godolphin Art Gallery, Roderic O'Conor, A Selection of his best works in Ireland, 1978, no. 4.
London, Barbican Art Gallery, Roderic O'Conor 1860-1940, September - November 1985, no. 30: this exhibition travelled to Belfast, Ulster Museum, November 1985 - January 1986; Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, January - March 1986; and Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, March - May 1986.

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Alice Murray
Alice Murray

Lot Essay

There can be little doubt that O’Conor’s contact with Gauguin had a far-reaching effect on his life and art, beginning almost certainly with an exhortation to work more from memory and less from nature. After Gauguin’s final departure from France in 1895, O’Conor, never one to baulk at a challenge, embarked on a new series of paintings that drew extensively from his imagination and appeared to be of symbolist intent. The subjective and evocative qualities of these works derive from their loosely defined forms and their juxtaposition of recognisable objects and figures within unexpected contexts and relationships. Although the subjects varied widely, a consistent style was applied throughout with an emphasis on a palette of warm, intense colours laid on thickly with brush and palette knife. Baigneuse à la mer was the biggest canvas in a small group of bathers compositions that emerged from this experimental phase, their heavy impasto suggesting a prolonged gestation period that may have stretched as far as 1904-05. The recent discovery of several watercolours and monotypes of bathers from his hand suggests that they began with studies from life, one of them showing what appears to be the same model in a similar pose, in reverse, bending to the left with the sea directly behind her (Nu en bord de mer, Thierry-Lannon, Brest, 13 October 2009, lot 342).

O’Conor’s imposing Baigneuse invites comparison with symbolist compositions of bathers by Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, particularly the latter’s depiction of a female nude abandoning herself to the ocean, Woman in the waves (Cleveland Museum of Art). This image so delighted its creator that it spawned many derivatives in other media. O’Conor, who could have seen the painting at the Café Volpini in Paris in 1889, would have been quick to appreciate the figure’s symbolic connotations as “an icon of joyous, primitive animality” (see Francois Cachin in exhibition catalogue, The Art of Paul Gauguin, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1988, p. 147).

Another likely source of inspiration may be found in the bathers compositions of Renoir, especially his Blonde Bather of 1881 (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA) which features a three-quarter length seated nude positioned against a background of sea and cliffs. O’Conor, who may have met Renoir when he visited Pont-Aven in October 1892, could have seen this work at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris from 1897 or at the Salon d’Automne of 1904.

By way of contrast, O’Conor’s Baigneuse is elevated above a turbulent sea, the sheer cliffs that form the backdrop presumably rendering bathing impossible at this location. She has turned her back to the land and directs her gaze away from it, most likely towards a continuation of the horizon that is just visible at the upper left of the composition. At the same time her proximity to the picture plane is such that her figure has had to be cropped at the level of her thighs, whilst she half turns towards the viewer and adopts a pose that is anything but demure.

The smouldering sexuality of O’Conor’s bather reflects an attitude to women that seems to have echoed Gauguin’s. O’Conor’s friend Alden Brooks described him as “the handsome gifted Irish painter favourite of the ladies”. In the same letter Brooks also recalled the occasion he purchased a Gauguin wood carving from his friend, and O’Conor “gave me for full measure a letter Gauguin wrote him. It was too scatological for publication - details of the ideal position in sexual intercourse - and I lost the letter when the Germans pillaged my house; but an interesting feature of the letter was that Gauguin urged O’Conor to accompany him to the South Seas” (see Alden Brooks, letter to Denys Sutton, 12 July 1956, pp. 2-3 (Tate Archive)). Although O’Conor never made the journey, in pictures such as Baigneuse à la mer he demonstrated how he remained one of the faithful.

We are grateful to Jonathan Benington for preparing this catalogue entry.

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