This stunningly observed and beautifully realised nude has been considered a portrait of the artist's model, mistress and future wife, Renée Honta (1894-1955). Standing in the way, however, of a conclusive identification is the complete absence of photographs showing Renée's appearance when she was in her teens - the age of the young woman shown here. For visual evidence we are obliged to turn instead to O'Conor's painted images of Renée, and in particular a nude which was identified conclusively as a portrait of her when it was auctioned at Christie's, Dublin, 28 June 1995 (lot 34).
While acknowledging the fact that the latter work shows an older woman, probably in her early thirties, it seems hard to believe that the two images depict the same sitter. The subject of La jeune fille is much slimmer and flatter chested, her hair is shoulder length rather than bobbed, her cheekbones are broader and her nose is less prominent. She is, in short, more conventionally pretty, the assurance and frankness of her pose tending to disguise the fact that this is most likely an image of puberty. The title of the picture itself hints at an age for the sitter of less than eighteen. This title was given to the painting by the artist when he presented it for exhibition in Paris, probably at the 1928 Salon d'Automne.
Ultimately, the urge to identify the subject of La jeune fille is a distraction from O'Conor's true purpose in painting this picture. The sculptural presence of the figure, the close viewpoint and subtle use of side-lighting, the exquisitely modelled forms with their restrained colours and textured build-up of pigment - all point to this being a carefully staged celebration of feminine beauty on the eve of womanhood. There are no props or jewellery to divert attention away from the figure. Age regards youth and does so poignantly, without seeking to awaken overtly carnal thoughts. It is noteworthy that although the model holds centre stage, her gaze does not confront that of the viewer. She remains mentally alert, her face turned towards the light which is streaming in through the studio window. Although far from being modest, the upright pose seems to belie sexual availability, in stark contrast to the nudes of young girls painted by O'Conor's mentor, Gauguin, thirty years earlier.
We are very grateful to Jonathan Benington for providing the catalogue entry for lots 63, 64 and 67.