Roderic O'Conor (Irish, 1860-1940) Souvenir of Pont-Aven 36 x 35.5 cm. (14 1/4 x 14 in.)

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Lot 90
Roderic O'Conor
(Irish, 1860-1940)
Souvenir of Pont-Aven 36 x 35.5 cm. (14 1/4 x 14 in.)

Sold for £ 20,347 (US$ 27,996) inc. premium
Roderic O'Conor (Irish, 1860-1940)
Souvenir of Pont-Aven
signed with initials 'R0C' and inscribed 'Souvenir of Pont-Aven' (verso)
36 x 35.5 cm. (14 1/4 x 14 in.)


  • The pose and appearance of the model with her pointed nose and double chin are identical to those depicted in Femme de profil, a brush and ink drawing by O’Conor of the same Breton woman (see ‘Roderic O’Conor 1860-1940’, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1985, p.115 cat. 121). In the drawing the top of the model’s head is cropped, as in the pastel, but the wavy line of the lower edge of a coiffe de travail can just be seen, such as was worn by Pont-Aven women on weekdays. It is probable that the model was a servant working in one of the many Pont-Aven inns or hotels. The removal of the coiffe by a Breton woman has been referred to by Ronald Pickvance as “an omission extremely rare… in local custom of the period” (‘Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven’, San Diego Museum of Art 1994, p.140). Its absence here alludes therefore to an intimacy between artist and model, suggesting that the original purpose of the portrait was one of private study.

    The fact that the related ink drawing is datable to the early to mid-1890s allows the pastel to be assigned to the same timeframe, in other words just prior to O’Conor’s departure from Pont-Aven for the more isolated Breton town of Rochefort-en-terre.

    The model’s bowed head and the choice of back-lighting to throw it into strong relief, with the light striking the back of the woman’s neck and leaving the front of her face in shadow, are common features of O’Conor’s approach to depicting the human figure. This strategy can be seen in several of his oil paintings of Breton peasants, including Head of a Breton Boy (Sotheby’s Irish Sale, 13 May 2004, lot 58) and Breton Girl Reading (see ‘Peintres irlandais en Bretagne’, Musée de Pont-Aven, 1999, p.68 cat. 32).

    Although no other pastels by O’Conor have come to light, he is well known for having pursued a very experimental path in his drawings and prints of the 1890s, often mixing coloured crayons and chalks with watercolour and ink washes in his studies of the Breton landscape and coastline. His experimental zeal would have derived impetus from observing the same tendency in the work of Odilon Redon, one of O’Conor’s favourite artists and a great exponent of the pastel medium. He also knew that Gauguin had favoured pastel in many of his Breton works, inspired no doubt by the example of Degas, and that his interest in the medium had filtered through to most members of the Pont-Aven School. Against this background, it would have been strange if the Irishman had not worked in pastel, and entirely characteristic of him that when he did pick it up he should have deployed it with the same verve and energy as was his custom when working in oil paint. In Souvenir de Pont-Aven the pastel medium has been applied very thickly and a lot of ‘scumbled’ textures have been created – for example in the model’s left shoulder, her cheek and hair. This texturing was probably achieved using the long sides of the sticks of pastel, rather than the narrow ends. A similar effect can be seen in many of Degas’s pastels.

    The range of colours in Souvenir de Pont-Aven is generally subdued, but there are a few brighter accents, notably the highlight on the model’s neck which is a very bright cream / pale green colour, intermixed with pink. A hint of O’Conor’s well known ‘striping’ technique (mauve, light green, dark green) appears in the left background, also more subtly in the right background (ochre, green), the prevalence of green tints suggesting an outdoor setting for the portrait. Mauve has been used in the model’s cheek along with bright red, the latter colour also being added to her ear and the tip of her nose. Again, this system of distributing brighter colour accents across the whole picture surface, extending both to the face and to the background, can be found in many of O’Conor’s Breton figure paintings, for example Bretonne (Sotheby’s Irish Sale, 13 May 2005, lot 54).

    Because the inscribed title on the reverse of this pastel, Souvenir of Pont-Aven, is in English rather than French, it is likely that the work was given as a present to one of O’Conor’s English-speaking friends at some point after his permanent removal from Pont-Aven to Paris in 1904 (this would explain how the pastel was not included in the O’Conor studio sale of 1956). In the early years of the 20th century, O’Conor was regularly visited by various members of the Bloomsbury circle of artists and writers, some of whom received paintings from him. A number of his Francophile American acquaintances similarly benefited from his generosity.

    Jonathan Benington
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