Roderic O’Conor was born in Ireland but spent most of his life in France, where he was in the vanguard of the expressionist movement. In 1889 he encountered the works of van Gogh, and was the first to emulate his expressive brushstrokes.
Crucial to his development were the periods spent between 1891 and 1904 at the artists’ colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany. Under Gauguin’s influence, O’Conor adopted elements of the romantic and subjective style known as synthetism into his work, including a high-keyed palette and expressive brushwork. By 1916, when Mixed flowers on pink cloth was painted, O’Conor was living in Paris, here his expressively charged realist style linked him with other artists of the so-called School of Paris, such as Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain, Othon Friesz and Dunoyer de Segonzac, who followed a middle path between the academic and the avant-garde.
O’Conor frequently favoured the sensual and passionate appeal of the colour red in his still-life and female figure paintings, and in this flower study it is the dominant element of the colour scheme. The brilliant blooms of crimson, scarlet and vermilion are intensified by their juxtaposition with the acid greens and yellows of the vase and other flowers, and the dark green of the foliage. There are red tints in the warm brown-ochre background, and the colour is carried through in the luminously pink foamy wave of tablecloth, which seems to pour over the foreground.
In Paris O’Conor’s style grew closer to that of Pierre Bonnard, whose work he admired. Both artists were interested in the expressive value of colour and the revelatory qualities of light, and preferred to suggest rather than define forms. In this work the flowers have an unfocused quality, as if the artist has looked at them with half-closed eyes. This lack of definition suggests a shimmering, lightfilled atmosphere that contributes to the painting’s intense glow. A skilled technician, O’Conor varied his method of paint application depending on his subject and the effect he wanted to achieve. This work shows his more heavily worked technique in which both flowers and cloth are painted freely and expressively with broad brushstrokes and impasto highlights.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).