The present works are exact, small-scale replicas of two of Henry O'Neil's most imposing and successful compositions, Naomi and Esther. O'Neil often produced smaller versions of his most celebrated paintings, the best example being Eastward Ho! which was painted by the artist several times in varying formats. One smaller version, also an exact replica, was sold in these Rooms, 16 October 1981, lot 26, for £11,000.
The original Esther was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 (no. 1255) and commented on in the Athenaeum of the same year; 'In the class of the poetic and the romantic there remains to be named, Mr. H. O'Neil's Esther (1255), good as a composition, though not rich in the suggestion of Oriental climate' (Athenaeum, no. 1180, 8 June 1850, p. 615). The painting was in the collection of T. Birchall at Ribbleton Hall in Preston before being sold at Sotheby's Belgravia on 29 June 1976, lot 68, for £1200.
The large version of Naomi was actually painted in 1844 and was exhibited at the British Institute that year (no. 367), indicating that it was not originally conceived to form a pair with Esther. The Art Union commented on its exhibition with something of a double edged sword; 'Exceeding care in the study of the figures has led the artist into an undue sharpness of outline. We are much pleased to observe that the figures have a character much more appropriate than those of the last year' (Art Union, 1844, p. 60). Prince Albert commissioned a slightly smaller replica of this work for £105 shortly after seeing it for the first time and when O'Neil finished the painting late in 1846 it was placed in Osborne House where it hangs to this day (Royal Collection, catalogue no. 531).
To call the present works 'studies' is to belittle their importance; stylistically they are the equal of the original canvases and every bit as impressive in all but size. Furthermore, for the smaller versions to post-date their large counterparts is not unusual and, indeed, the present Naomi is dated six years after the original was first exhibited. These two works, therefore, must be considered not as preparatory works, nor indeed as O'Neil reworking his compositions (as some of the versions of Eastward Ho! would appear to be), but as the artist's attempt to render his paintings more accessible and commercially successful, either through the direct commissions themselves or through the related engravings of the images.