This striking painting of a Breton peasant boy by Roderic O’Conor was last seen in public in 1957. Its re-emergence 62 years later and its reproduction in colour for the very first time, allow its creator to be seen for the highly original and daring innovator he was. A work of 1893, Breton Boy in Profile demonstrates O’Conor’s awareness of the most up-to-date currents in fin-de-siècle modernism.
O’Conor’s first two years in Pont-Aven, 1891-93, saw him engage with local Breton subjects – the peasantry, the countryside and coast, regional household objects – whilst importing a pictorial style that reflected progressive work he had seen in Paris, instead of the Synthetist methods of his Pont-Aven colleagues. Determined to carve out his own artistic identity, he chose to graft the gestural brushwork and non-naturalistic colours he had discovered in Vincent Van Gogh’s late paintings onto his own interpretations of rural life.
At this juncture in his life O’Conor had yet to meet and befriend Paul Gauguin, but his innate affinity for progressive trends in art had already led him to the door of Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s art dealing brother. The occasion was the memorial exhibition of Van Gogh’s paintings that Theo staged in his Parisian apartment in September 1890. O’Conor was accompanied by his American friend, the painter Edward Brooks, and with privileged access to a dense hang that ‘gave the impression of a series of rooms in a museum’, it was reported the visitors found the pictures ‘interesting, startling, and they rather fascinated us.’ The experience in O’Conor’s case proved to be career-defining. In April 1892 he followed up with a visit to the first ever Van Gogh exhibition staged in an art gallery, that of the dealer Le Barc de Boutteville. Here he encountered La Berceuse, the Dutch painter’s portrait of Augustine Roulin (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), in which the model’s forehead and hair were painted with thick parallel brushstrokes of yellow, brown, pink and purple. The head and figure of this portrait were defined by a dark contour line, not unlike the border O’Conor added to the profile of his Breton Boy a year later.
These similarities aside, the rendering of the boy’s head, shoulder and background are, if anything, more intense: O’Conor lays vivid complementary colours side by side and makes no attempt to soften their impact through blending. Stripes of pink and ochre run diagonally through the highlighted areas of the face, only to change angle and mutate into pink and green denoting the shaded parts of cheek and neck. The diagonal movement continues in the left background, where a pale blue is juxtaposed with two shades of green and some touches of red. The ordering of O’Conor’s colours and brushstrokes, such that the network of lines follows the shifts of the various planes, lends the work a strongly moulded, almost sculpted appearance, completely avoiding any sentimentality.
Breton Boy in Profile and its related studies of male and female peasants may have arisen out of a spirit of friendly rivalry with Cuno Amiet (1868-1961). The two men spent the winter of 1892-93 in Pont-Aven, visiting each others’ studios regularly and offering candid critiques of work in progress. Amiet was probably the first to introduce coloured ‘stripes’ into the face of one of his models, for in late June 1892 he painted Breton woman (Kunstmuseum Olten), in which streaks of blue, red, ochre and green denoted her head. Radical as this was, the close-toned colours retained an illusionistic bias, as if the artist intended them to mix optically like the dots of the Pointillists. O’Conor’s striations, on the other hand, are more uncompromising, their boldness giving them the status of autonomous expressive gestures, whilst the concomitant simplification of forms challenges the conventions of portraiture: Breton Boy in Profile is not so much an individual as an archetype, a symbol of Breton youth.
A year later, back in his native Switzerland, Amiet painted Beggar Boy with Bread (Kunstmuseum Solothurn) showing a peasant lad in profile, facing right, his head and jacket traversed with stripes. When Amiet exhibited this work at Basel’s Kunsthalle in 1894, his motivation was surely to seek recognition for the style he and O’Conor had pioneered two years earlier.
We are very grateful to Jonathan Benington for preparing this catalogue entry.