Justin O’BRIEN
Australia, 1917 - 1996
worked Italy from 1967

Boy in a brown hat, 1958
oil on composition board
87.0 x 61.0 cm
inscribed upper right: O’BRIEN

Justin O’Brien, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 25 November-7 December 1959, catalogue no.11.
Fine Australian paintings and drawings, Sotheby’s, Sydney, 22 October 1986, lot 133

Like many Australians Justin O’Brien first visited Europe during World War 2, when in 1940, and attached to the Australian Medical Army Corps he was stationed in Greece and Palestine. Captured in 1940 and held as a prisoner of war in Poland until 1944, O’Brien returned to Australia and was appointed art master at Cranbrook School in Bellevue Hill, Sydney, a position he held until 1967. While the position gave him secure employment, it also provide him with the freedom to take time off to travel in England, France and Italy from 1947 to 1949. In 1964 he lived with Jeffrey Smart on Skyros, Greece, a trip which helped him decide to live in Europe. In 1967 he resigned from his teaching job and left Australia for Greece, subsequently moving to Rome where he lived until his death in 1996.

In the 1950s O’Brien began a series of portraits, mostly of young men, some of whom were students. Among these fellow artist Peter Hatsatouris, 1957, is one of few in which the sitter is identified. Most of these portraits are of unidentified subjects distinguished by their clothing, such as Boy in a pink jacket, about 1962, Boy in a red jacket, 1963, and Boy in a straw hat, 1976. Boy in a brown hat, 1958, is an early example in the series, but possesses many of the qualities which distinguish these other portraits. The sitter is posed in an almost workmanlike manner looking out at the viewer, with his hands resting on his thighs. With his shirt collar, slightly askew and wearing a pink sweater and brown trousers he might be a student asked to pose for the art master. Only the hat, perhaps of ecclesiastical origin, hints at an exotic prop.

The background in the portrait is more geometric and decorative than realistic. A red wall almost clashes with the pink sweater on the sitter’s left, while the dark green of the more distant wall contrasts with the pink most effectively. The pattern of the black and white tiled floor, the panelled door, the edge of the wooden cupboard, and even the hard stool the boy is posed on give the painting an awkward geometry. But perhaps not as awkward as the sitter, perched on the edge of a stool.

During his time in Italy O’Brien saw the paintings of Duccio a painter active in Sienna in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Considered one of the founders of Western art Duccio placed his subjects, mainly religious figures, in architectural settings. The softness of the figure, more realistically painted than had been traditional practice, was frequently contrasted with a geometric surrounding, allowing him to explore space and depth. O’Brien obviously learned from Duccio’s example, contrasting the realism of the sitter with a carefully arranged background in which geometric shapes, both create and deny the sense of the space. Like Duccio’s Madonnas on gilt backgrounds, O’Brien’s sitter stares out at you, surrounded by rich colours, but is still uncertain about his place in the world.

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