He was clearly attracted to the sea which often plays an atmospheric mood-setting role in many of his paintings. It may be noted that he lived in County Down for a period and painted Tyrella beach including The Black Rocks Of Tyrella, (late 1950s ) as well as works where the sea plays a dramatic role as in some of his County Donegal paintings.
In many respects O'Neill is a consummate figurative artist. Portraits of women always remained an important subject for the artist throughout his career, although there are some self portraits as with the muse in Artist's Model (1948/49) or occasionally as a youthful narcissus. Often his female studies are taken out of time, sometimes by the use of historical costumes.
Figures on a beach (single or in small groupings) allowed O'Neill to indulge in a more sensuous portrayal of the female figure. A relevant example would include Reclining Figure On The Beach, Tyrella, where the disposition of the young girl's fore-fronted reclining body is alluring.
The Painting Bathers, for sale in this auction, shows a harmonious grouping of four female figures seated on an otherwise empty beach. The blue horizon line contributes to the stability of the composition while the tonal break in the sky is mood setting and a little foreboding. The harmony at work in the painting is induced by way of the semi-circular compositional arrangement and the easy languid dispositions of the figures in varying degrees of contraposto.
Again they are lifted out of time: their clothing, rendered in places with the artist's trade mark impasto, is not contemporary and the general ambiance more Mediterranean than that of a colder northern temperate climate. We tend to associate the theme of 'bathers' ('Les Grandes Baigneuses') with early modernists working in France at the beginning of the 20th century and as such the painting recalls to some extent the joie de vivre of painters such as Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso although in O'Neill's painting such association with Cote D'Azur hedonism is muted and restrained. Of course O'Neiil did spend several months in France circa 1948/9 and would have seen a range of such paintings.
The ground sheet upon which the bathers are seated is shell-like as if transporting them, like Botticelli's Venus, from the sea onto the beach. The colour tints or hues of the pink, yellows and blues of the clothes are exquisite and together with the profiles of women appear more Italianate than French. The controlled orchestration of the variety of colours and forms contributes to the painting's classical elegance and repose and as such look more Venetian stylistically - a beautifully contrived moment out of time.
Professor Liam Kelly
- Auction Details
The sale grossed €2.5 million with 85% of lots sold
Among the highlights were Jack Butler Yeats Shouting at €1.74 million, equalling the world record held by Whyte’s for Ireland’s greatest artist, Grace Henry The Fortune Teller at €46,000, a new world record for Paul Henry’s first wife, John Shinnors Towel and The Snowman at €42,360, Graham Knuttel Planet Hollywood at €24,900, a new world record for this popular artist, and Letitia Hamilton A Cove on Lake Garda, €21,800. Prices include buyers’ premium and VAT.
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WHYTE AND SONS AUCTIONEERS LIMITED, 2018.
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