Une Jeune Bretonne by Roderic O'Conor Ruth Keating Collections Intern
An Irish modernist painter, O’Conor found his true inspiration in the sun dappled meadows and white washed buildings of Brittany. His studies of Breton girls in regional clothing explore the post Impressionist techniques emerging amongst painters influenced by Paul Gaugin, whilst remaining rooted in tradition. Originally from Roscommon, O’Conor studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin but left Ireland in the 1880’s to travel and broaden his artistic horizons. A community of artists working in the Post Impressionist style were present in Brittany from the late 1880’s, and the cafes of Paris were bustling with writers, artists and thinkers intoxicated with the spirit of modernism. O’Conor imbibed this progressive atmosphere and settled in Pont Aven, Brittany.
Roderic O’Conor was exposed to the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh in Paris in 1889 and 1890 where they were exhibited at the Salon des Independants. The influence of this painter on his work is evident in the raucous colours and confident brushstrokes of Yellow Landscape, Pont-Aven (1892) and Flowers, bottle and two jugs (c.1891-2). The bold stripes characterised by the Dutch master are present in Roderic O’Conor’s work from the early 1890’s onwards, as he captures the provincial lives of French peasants and their environs.
The paintings O’Conor made of the residents of Pont-Aven are infused with a solemn atmosphere. The sitters he chose are characterised by their conservative dress and intense dignity. None exemplify this more than the young girl O’Conor painted in Bretonne (1903) and Une Jeune Bretonne(1903). She sits serene and composed, her figure linked carefully to the background with stripes of green and red upon her cheek. Although her costume and attitude steep the young Breton in tradition, the approach O’Conor takes in painting her is strikingly modern. Pulsating colours laid in controlled bands strike the juxtaposition between the stoical manner of the sitter and the turbulent emotion behind the piece. Her headdress is undone and a black shawl sits over her wide collar indicating that she is in mourning. Her full lips and rosy complexion display her youth despite her haunted look of weary contemplation. She is imbued with sadness and her direct gaze is spellbinding.
I have chosen Une Jeune Bretonne because of its hypnotic effects. Like attending a solemn vigil, sitting with this Breton girl is both an intense and meditative experience. We can recognise her grief but the behind her enigmatic expression her secrets remain intact. The painting was featured in an exhibition of work by Irish artists organised by Sir Hugh Lane at the London Guildhall in 1904. Une Jeune Bretonne was exhibited alongside the works of Lavery, Osborne and Orpen. Roderic O’Conor presented the work to the Hugh Lane Gallery in 1904, a year before Lane began to purchase Impressionist paintings for his collection.
 Benington Jonathan, Roderic O’Conor, A Biography with a Catalogue of his Work, Irish Academic Press, pages 51-53.