By all accounts Justin O'Brien was a charming man who used his wit, skill and humour to turn acquaintance into friendship. His art reflected this gregarious disposition and was intended to win admiration as well as critical appreciation. Young Girl in a Mantilla 1995, not surprisingly, is a charming painting.
O'Brien knew what note to strike in a conversation and he applied this understanding to visual dialogue: he was successful from the start, consistently selling well to collectors. He won the inaugural Blake Prize for Religious Art in 1951 with The Virgin Enthroned 1950-51 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) at the beginning of his career and was honoured with solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1987 and the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, in 2010.
O'Brien's good nature was tempered by the suffering he had witnessed during his war time experience. The nostalgia and whiff of melancholy that pervades his works might be the legacy of this intense moment in his life. His early work tended to religious themes, replete with distended figures, as elongated as anything by El Greco(1541-1614), but rendered in bright, contemporary colours. While his imagery was always symbolic rather than naturalistic, the complexity of his compositions and the angularity of his figures mellowed to clarity and simplicity in later work, of which Young Girl in a Mantilla is a prime example.
Young Girl in a Mantilla is one of a group of window views that O'Brien painted in his last years in Rome. The same green and gold background of foliage and balustrade crowned building appears in several of his late paintings, including Woman against a Window 1993, Summer Afternoon 1993, and Still Life on a Window Ledge 1993. By this time O'Brien was living in the Papal City, and the paintings show the outlook through the window of his apartment close to Via Alberico II which O'Brien described as having a ‘much better view… which has beautiful trees in the courtyard and from the back I look onto the Nigerian Embassy’.1 A near identical background of cedar trees and date palms, complete with ripening fruit, also appears in his Portrait of a Young Man, an undated painting but undoubtedly made at much the same time, given that it might almost be a companion piece to Young Girl in a Mantilla. While O'Brien is better known for his paintings of soulful young boys, his adorable girl with mantilla shares the same aura of bruised innocence. In contrast to the image of the boy who is posed directly against the landscape, the girl in this painting feels cloistered and hemmed in by the bars of the black railing and dark trees trunks. Beyond there is sunshine and an open world.
O'Brien was enraptured by the artists of the renaissance, especially Duccio (1255-1318), but in this work he may have been inspired by Agnolo Bronzino's (1503-1572) Portrait of Bia de' Medici 1545 in the Uffizi in Florence which shows a girl in a similar pose. The face may have been invented, but more likely belongs or more probably belongs to a model, as a similar girl appears in another work painted in the apartment a few years earlier, Study for Two Children in a Room 1993. Young Girl in a Mantilla would have relied on sketches made at this time.
Young Girl in Mantilla 1995 is one of the artist's last works and it was purchased directly from the Estate and held until now. It is a rewarding example of O'Brien’s ability to combine the pleasure of painting with the pleasure of seeing and provides for viewers, just as much as for the artist, a moment of serenity.
1. France, C., Justin O’Brien: Image and Icon, Craftsman House, Sydney, revised edition, 1997, p.36