Shortly after moving to Paris from Brittany in 1904, O'Conor produced a group of studio interiors in which the figure was portrayed against the light, or contre-jour. Doubtless he was aware of the use made of this technique by Degas and Bonnard, both of whom took similar delight in the resonance and ambiguity of shadows.
O'Conor responded to the new challenge with gusto. Finding his feet in new cosmopolitan surroundings he felt, impelled him to develop a new approach. For the first time in his life he was the proud and sole occupier of a spacious studio, illuminated on one side by a series of large windows. He quickly found that the effects of light and shade, contrast and colour could be endlessly adjusted by placing his models at varying distances from the windows, and by painting them at different times of day. One way to expand the range of such opportunities was to interpose his subjects in the space between the light source and his easel, thereby making it appear as if they were emerging dramatically from the shadows.
O'Conor's contre-jour body of work comprises a self-portrait and several paintings of nude and clothed female models. The present work is arguably the most surprising and the most daring of the entire group. The figure is viewed at close proximity, so that the masses of her torso and skirt completely dominate the composition; we are, in truth, almost within touching distance of this mantled figure whose facial features we are unable to discern. The light reflects off her neck, shoulder and bodice, dazzling in its brightness, and yet the absence of detail that is a direct corollary of the viewing conditions means that she must remain an enigma.
Capturing such a scene with a camera would be virtually impossible - the lens could never cope with the extreme light-dark contrasts. Only a brave artist would attempt it in paint, knowing that the glare of light from behind the subject would demand something extra from the colours at his disposal. O'Conor's solution is easy to discern: he pushed the plastic properties of oil paint to new extremes of gesture and impasto. The sensuous build-up of pigment in this work is at once highly experimental and daring. Whilst the mosaic-like textures prompt comparison with Sickert's paintings dating from 1907 such as The Juvenile Lead, the approach of the Irishman is so radical as to be ahead of its time, anticipating the work of contemporary artists such as Frank Auerbach.