In St Stephen's Green
Walter Frederick Osborne, R.H.A
The O’Brien Collection
In St Stephen’s Green, circa 1895, belongs to a celebrated body of work portraying the Irish working class on the streets of Dublin. Osborne occupied a large studio at 7 St Stephen’s Green, and started to look to the streets of Dublin for inspiration, and the resulting body of work is among his most celebrated.
Here, Osborne has depicted a seemingly tranquil scene of people seated on a row of public benches under dappled sunlight. An elderly man with a light grey beard occupies the center of the composition, with a meandering line of figures to his right, all pensively gazing out into the scene before them. Seated next to him is a young woman holding a child, her expression worn and weary. The contrast between young and old contributes to a visual allegory for the different stages in life, a theme explored by Osborne in many of his works from this period. In the left foreground we can see a shaggy white haired dog, gazing towards the viewer, its face described using only a few carefully placed brush marks to indicate its eyes and nose. At first glance, this vibrant impressionistic scene is joyous and carefree, but on closer inspection Osborne has painted his subjects in a manner faithful to the hardships of working class life in Dublin. The figures appear to be lost in their own thoughts, and the weight of their hardship is intimated by the resigned expression and stooped posture of the mother. Osborne’s desire to authentically represent what he could see before him, whilst also empathizing with his subjects, was a profoundly modernist activity.
In St Stephen’s Green relates closely to one of Osborne’s most famous masterpieces, In a Dublin Park, Light and Shade, 1895 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin- http://onlinecollection.nationalgallery.ie/objects/1416/in-a-dublin-park-light-and-shade?ctx=1c78c603-bdf2-41d9-b830-2026dff9b5ef&idx=0) which is renowned for its vivid depiction of the Irish working class.
In St Stephen’s Green exhibits a similar group of figures; the elderly man with a bowler hat and walking stick next to the young woman with a child on her lap, almost as though it is the same moment captured from a different viewpoint. The dappled light of the sun falling down upon them softens the scene, providing the figures with a moment of rare calm and rest, and their companionable yet solitary reflection resonates with the viewer.
The surface of the work is adorned with energetic brushwork that brings the dynamic lighting conditions to life, exemplifying his preoccupation with rendering light and shade. Executed on an impressive scale for a work with such vivid spontaneity, In St Stephen’s Green is testament to Osborne’s mastery of depicting sunlight, informed by his devotion to painting en plein air in previous years. Such qualities demonstrate the significant influence that the new continental art movements he was exposed to during his travels in Northern Europe and England had on Osborne.
In 1881, Osborne left Ireland to study at the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen, where Vincent Van Gogh was to study only 5 years later. Along with contemporaries such as Roderic O’Conor, Osborne subsequently visited the thriving artistic communities of Brittany, and he spent considerable time in Pont-Aven. It was here that Osborne recognized that the principal modernist painters were painting directly from nature, and his artistic practice shifted towards a more Impressionistic approach. He then moved to England where he became associated with British Impressionists such as George Clausen, Henry Herbert La Thangue and Wilson Steer. Indeed, Osborne played an instrumental role in the introduction and promotion of British and European plein air painting to Irish Art, and In St Stephen’s Green exemplifies the artist’s preoccupation with fusing the continental approach to painting with quintessential Irish subject matter.
Walter Frederick Osborne was born in Dublin in 1859, the second son of animal painter William Osborne. His family lived in Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines and he may have spent some time in his father’s studio before attending the Royal Hibernian Academy Schools in Dublin. He also seems to have attended classes in the Metropolitan School of Art. In 1881, he won the Taylor scholarship of £50 which enabled him to study abroad. He arrived in Antwerp in 1881 with fellow Irish painters Kavanagh and Hill and registered as a pupil in Verlat’s “Natuur” class at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts. An influential teacher, Verlat was a genre and animal painter and perhaps it was because his father was an animal painter that Osborne felt drawn to Verlat’s class.
Two years later, Osborne travelled to Brittany where he worked at Pont-Aven, a famous artist colony. The plein-air style of painting associated with the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage was pervasive among the younger painters at this time. Osborne left Brittany for England c.1884 and then worked in several small rural communities, painting landscapes and genre scenes: first at Walberswick, where Augustus Burke, his teacher at the RHA Schools, had painted and then at Evesham with Edward Stott and Nathaniel Hill where he developed a more lucid naturalism. During these years, Osborne wavered between precise naturalism and the looser sketch-like handling of Whistler. His subject matter also varied between scenes of rural life and coastal genre. Osborne remained in England until 1892 and associated himself with the painters of the New English Art Club, notably Stott, Fletcher, Brown, and Steer.
While abroad, Osborne kept in contact with Dublin’s artistic community. He painted Dublin scenes, became a full member of the RHA in 1886 and, in the same year, was one of the founders of the Dublin Art Club. He taught in the Academy Schools, where one of his most important pupils was William J. Leech, from the early 1890s until his death. Osborne’s return to Dublin was prompted by the death of his sister, Violet, whose newly-born baby was given into the care of Osborne’s aged parents. (Note: At the Breakfast Table in the collection of the Snite Museum depicts this.)
From this time, Osborne cultivated a portrait practice and became very successful; he obtained international recognition when his “Mrs Noel Guinness and her Daughter Margaret” received a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1900. Concurrently, Osborne continued to paint garden scenes and interiors with children; but, by this time, the artist’s general manner of painting had begun to change. Influenced by the Impressionists, especially Manet and Degas, in his later work his palette is more adventurous, his brushwork looser, and his approach more painterly. (This change is evident in In St. Stephen’s Green. )
In 1900 he was offered a Knighthood in recognition of his services to art and his distinction as a painter, but he refused. He died of pneumonia in 1903 at the age of forty-three.
POETIC ACCOMPANIMENTS FOR THE PAINTING
(1) Light amidst Shadows
They come for respite, to recall or to forget
who once they were meant to or thought they might be.
Alone among others, each with their own woes, cares and dreams,
to carry, to mull over – most of all, truly hoping to see.
And children too, so full of wonder,
busy in the present, distracted and distracting
those older, who ponder if all such carefree seconds can last,
asking whether by longing or lingering here,
some peace may come to pass.
Brief knowing glances suggesting communion or
from their worries, perhaps a time to be free.
In each other’s eyes, their stories made clearer,
soul stirrings now soothed by the breeze through the trees.
Dusk in the distance when the shadowy mists rise
crosses swiftly to fretful night-falls,
so, to these moments they cling.
The sought-after solace, the glimpse of wants granted
-and those that have not- here on these benches
amidst the dappled branches and birdsong, transfixed again in this glorious spot.
Oh- Artist at the easel, bring perspective and light
only you can stretch this present repose
across your canvas, smooth and tight.
You must know that we’ll soon need to go.
You it seems, can see and can hear us,
you alone can bring the anxious clock to a painterly halt.
Confine our uncertainties; diminish our faults; complete your task…
Is it too much for us to ask?
Sketch our lives swiftly and surely,
paint us too if you must…
so that our stories may endure
through the days and the decades,
and alas -and especially- beyond the dust.
M. James Patrick
I am ready to become a tree,
not because some god is after me,
bearing down with his aerial authority,
my heart bolting from the thrust of his need.
My figure will be transformed in one go;
my human shell turned into the trunk of an oak,
my skin twisted to gnarled bark, my blood-flow
to sap. Out of the branch-bones leaves will grow.
Already, my fingers and toes are stretching out,
elongating into sinewy roots,
tucking themselves tightly into the ground;
and when a breeze blows my branches round,
I feel as if I’m going nuts, or out
of my tree. Today I stand tall and straight,
not breathing but rustling; birds congregate
in me, warbling airs while I create
chlorophyll, inspired by unfathomable light
to fulfil my destiny, synthesize my fate.
Cathal Ó Searcaigh
(translated by Frank Sewell)
MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENTS FOR THE PAINTING
Steve Cooney-Ceol Ársa Cláirisi -Tunes of the Irish Harpers for Solo Guitar
(Éiridh an Lae)-track 10
Tríona Ní Dhomnhaill- The Keys Within (The Sun on the Water) -track 1
Tríona Ní Dhomnhaill- The Keys Within (At the Last)- track 14
LOAH (Sallay Matu Garnett) The Body to the Soul