The recent rediscovery of this picture restores an important work to the small oeuvre of Frank O'Meara, who died at the age of thirty-five and was a painfully slow worker, apparently producing no more than one major painting a year. Born at Carlow in 1853, O'Meara came from a cosmopolitan family that had long distinguished itself in medicine. Generations of O'Mearas had been doctors, and Frank's grandfather, Dr. Barry O'Meara, had attended Napoleon on St Helena. There was also a strong literary strain in the family, surfacing particularly in Frank's cousin, Kathleen, who published novels and biographies under the name of Grace Ramsay.
O'Meara received his formal education in Carlow and Dublin. At this stage he too may have had a medical career in mind, but in the early 1870s he decided to study art in Paris. The city was rapidly emerging from the horrors of the Commune, and O'Meara was one of a number of young Irish artists whom it attracted at this date. He entered the studio of Carolus-Duran, a friend of Manet's who was establishing a successful portrait practice and had opened an atelier in the boulevard Montparnasse as recently as 1872. Many of the students were British or American, and O'Meara's companions included the brilliant young John Singer Sargent, another American, Will H. Low, whose reminiscences, A Chronicle of Friendships (1908), contains much valuable information about the young Irishman, and the colourful Scot, R.A.M. Stevenson, who was later to distinguish himself as an art-critic. Stevenson's cousin Robert Louis was also a leading light in the expatriate community.
Unlike most of the these figures, O'Meara remained in France long after his student days were over, making only brief trips home to Ireland. He was soon moving out of Paris in search of the plein-air subjects that were claiming the attention of artists across Europe at this date. In 1875 he visited Barbizon, where several of the circle, including Low and the Stevensons, had settled, and where some of the older generation of French artists who had been so closely associated with the village were still living. But in August that year the set moved on to Grez-sur-Loing, situated on the other side of the forest of Fontainebleau. The village not only had a river ideal for swimming and boating, but a medieval church, a ruined castle, a mill, and a cheep-and-cheerful inn, the Pension Chevillon. In fact it seemed to possess everything that appealed to the artistic temperament, being intensely picturesque but so peaceful that it invited indolence. Robert Louis Stevenson described it as 'a pretty and very melancholy village ... A low bridge of many arches choked with sedge; great fields of white and yellow water-lilies; poplars and willows innumerable; and about it all such an atmosphere of sadness and slackness, one could do nothing but get into the boat and out of it again, and yawn for bedtime'.
Corot had painted at Grez as early as 1863, but it was only in the early 1870s that an artistic colony was established. Many of the painters were British or American, and all were young, some of them still students. Sargent arrived not long after O'Meara, finding the place 'a veritable nest of bohemians'. Another early recruit was the Anglo-Austrian artist Louis Welden Hawkins, who knew Whistler and had shared rooms with O'Meara's fellow Irishman George Moore in Paris. By 1877 some of the original group were leaving, but they were followed by many others. Indeed the 1880s were the heyday of the Grez community. Robert Louis Stevenson, discussing Grez in an article on 'Village Communities of Painters' which he contributed to the Magazine of Art in 1884, observed that he had seen the bridge over the river Loing, one of the most popular local subjects, 'beaming from the walls of a hundred exhibitions', the Salon, Royal Academy, the recent Exposition Universelle in Paris. Among the artists most deeply involved in this defining movement in the development of international impressionism were William Stott of Oldham, the Scots James Guthrie and Arthur Melville, the Irishmen John Lavery and Roderic O'Conor, the American Alexander Harrison, and the Swede Carl Larsson, who, like Will Low, was O'Meara's exact contemporary. Larsson's compatriot August Strindberg was another visitor. Men of letters and even musicians were always an essential part of the Grez community.
While other talents came and went, O'Meara lived on in the village, making it his base for thirteen years. Chevillon's was his home, and he found constant inspiration in the river and the neighbouring forest. 'A figure who perhaps more than anyone else ... embodied the spirit of Grez', wrote the Swedish artist Georg Pauli, 'was the Irishman ... O'Meara. Nobody knew how long he had been in Grez, and no-one ever saw him leaving'. He was the first person 'that met your eye, when the carriage turned into the poor little village street ... He was standing leaning against the door of Chevillon's Inn, which was opposite the approaching road. He was dressed in a pair of knickerbockers, and made more of an impression of a poet than an artist'. O'Meara appears in a famous photograph of the Grez circle published in Will Low's book, and he is almost certainly the artist in beret and knee-breeches who lounges against the bridge in Lavery's On the Bridge at Grez (private collection; 1989 exhibition, no.18). In character, according to Low, he was the 'pure type of the Celt ... To the capricious moodiness of his race, the alternative sunshine and rain of his emerald isle, O'Meara joined an exquisitely sensitive temperament as an artist ... Superficially he realised well one of the heroes of Charles Lever's novels, gay, witty and insouciant, with a capacity for sudden white anger, when it behoved his best friends to treat him with a caution until a change of mood brought back the sunshine'. Sargent found him 'irresistible', and captured his Irish good looks, his charm and vulnerability in a portrait painted in 1875 (Century Association, New York; 1989 exhibition, no.12).
Despite his reputation for indolence ('no-one had ever seen him with a palette in his hands' wrote Pauli), O'Meara worked hard at Grez and was by no means without ambition, exhibiting at the Paris Salon, the Grosvenor Gallery in London, the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Glasgow Institute, and the Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions. He was also represented at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888, the year he died at Carlow from malaria, contracted, it is said, from painting in a French marsh some four years earlier. Nor did he ever lack critical acclaim, while Lavery, R.A.M. Stevenson and others who had known him continued to keep his memory green after his tragically early death. Hugh Lane acquired five of his most important pictures for the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art which opened in Dublin in 1908, and although he subsequently became something of a forgotten figure, a modern reassessment of O'Meara and his contemporaries was provided by the exhibition which circulated in Ireland in 1989.
O'Meara not only embodied 'the spirit of Grez' but the characteristic 'Grez style' in painting, restricted in tone, with an emphasis on greys, browns, and greens, and restrained, even sombre, in mood. Like so many of these artists, he was influenced both by the realism of Bastien-Lepage and the symbolism of Puvis de Chavannes, seeking a synthesis of the two like that achieved by another French artist they admired, J.-C. Cazin. In common with other products of Carolus-Duran's atelier, including Sargent, he also had a profound respect for Velazquez. There are many parallels between O'Meara's work and that of such fellow Grez artists as Stott, Lavery and Larsson, and their debt to him is well recognised. Indeed either through them or directly his influence was wide on both Glasgow and Scandinavian artists. 'He may be said to have founded a school', wrote a Scottish art critic in 1915.
But while O'Meara's work is characteristic of his circle, it possesses a dimension of poetry and symbolism that was matched by few of his contemporaries. It constantly harps on themes of loss, melancholy reflection and bitter regret. The titles of his pictures speak for themselves: Autumnal Sorrows, The Old Old Story, The Widow, Twilight, October, November, Towards Night and Winter, Old Woman burning Leaves, and so on. The 'sad' and 'melancholy' atmosphere of Grez itself was no doubt partly responsible. Certainly depression seemed to grow on him during his later years in the village, as departing comrades left him isolated and he suffered from poor health and shortage of money. But O'Meara clearly responded to his surroundings more intensely than most. Perhaps, as has been suggested, he was profoundly affected by the fact that his mother, a brother and a sister all died during his most impressionable years. Or perhaps Irish romanticism was the root cause of the mood he so often evokes, an almost Pre-Raphaelite intensity of feeling and everything summed up in the phrase 'Celtic twilight', associated above all with the early poetry of W.B. Yeats. 'Memories of dim woods peopled by damsels, half-fairy, half-human, rise up as I think of his work', wrote Will Low. 'Once released from the thraldom of school work, his fancy ran riot, and much which we today, in the work of W.B. Yeats and others, recognise as a definite attempt to express the national characteristics of his race in poetry and painting was foreshadowed in the tentative efforts of Frank O'Meara'.
The present picture is a perfect example of O'Meara's style. It was shown at the Paris Salon of 1882, an exhibition at which several other Grez artists, including Sargent, Stott, Hawkins and Alexander Harrison, were represented, and which also contained major works by their heroes, Puvis and Bastien-Lepage, as well as Manet's Bar aux Folies-Bergre (Courtauld Institute Galleries, London). A review in the Illustrated London News discussed the artists working in the French realist tradition, and was inclined to criticise O'Meara for not being a closer adherent. 'He has ignored the canons of the school and attempted the ideal instead of evolving it in a natural way from the simply real'. The picture was the second work called Rverie that O'Meara had shown at the Salon, the first having appeared in 1879; and it is interesting that a picture by Low exhibited there in 1876, one of the first works by a pupil of Carolus-Duran to achieve success, had had the same title.
O'Meara's first Rverie may be the picture now called Autumnal Sorrows, his earliest extant painting, which was acquired in 1980 by the Ulster Museum, Belfast (1989 exhibition, no.2). If so, this long Corot-like composition, with the bridge at Grez stretching across the middle distance, is very different in conception to the present work. In fact the Rverie of 1882 belongs to a sequence of pictures painted in the 1880s in which solitary female figures are shown absorbed in thought on the banks of the river Loing. It is more or less contemporary with The Widow (Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin; 1989 exhibition, no.4), and at one time it was even thought that they might be the same picture. But the closest comparison is Twilight (private collection; 1989 exhibition, no.5), a picture painted a year later and exhibited at the Glasgow Institute in 1884. In imagery, composition, restricted palette and mood of autumnal sadness, the two works are almost identical. The only important differences are that the day-dreaming girl in Rverie becomes an elderly woman in Twilight, while the rising moon is replaced by the setting sun. Our picture is also well over four times as large as the later variant.
In July 1882, shortly after it had been seen at the Salon, Rverie appeared in an important exhibition mounted in London by the Fine Art Society to introduce Grez painters to the British public. It was the only O'Meara among the fourteen pictures, which also included two works by Stott, Sargent's El Jaleo (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) and portrait of Carolus-Duran (Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Mass.), and examples of Alexander Harrison, Kenyon Cox, and others. The Magazine of Art found the exhibition 'decidedly interesting', and described Rverie as 'a careful and intelligent reductio ad absurdum of the whole theory and practice of art'. On this equivocal note, however, the picture disappeared, entering a French private collection where it has remained for nearly a hundred and twenty years, unseen by the general public or even known to scholars.