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James Arthur O’Connor is amongst the best-known and prolific of the early Irish landscape painters, and his work is arguably the best documented. Born in Dublin in 1792, his work provides a bridge between the early Georgian school of Barret, Carver and Roberts, and the early Victorian topographers who succeeded him. He retained the eighteenth century delight in Irish topography, and he has left us with a vivid record of the land in Dublin and its environs before the developments of the 19th century.
O’Connor’s father was a print-seller and engraver, so a career in the arts was perhaps inevitable for his son. It’s believed that he was taught by William Sadler. Though the two artists’ subjects are similar, their techniques are very different. Where Sadler is adept at a flickering use of paint on a thin washed-in design, O’Connor works his paint more thoroughly, and achieves a higher “finish” and more solid colouration and impasto. Sadler is essentially a topographer, O’Connor is a Romantic interpreter of the Irish landscape.
O’Connor left Ireland on a first Continental “grand tour” accompanied by his picture-dealer in 1826, visiting Belgium, though very few paintings from this period are now identifiable, apart from his view of the Field of Waterloo. He travelled to France and Germany in 1832, rather in the way that his friend the artist Francis Danby had done in the previous year. From the few paintings of this trip which still remain, it seems that O’Connor was either unable or unwilling to radically change his pictorial style to a type which might thoroughly reflect the work of the German Romantics such as Caspar Friedrich: his interpretation of the landscape seems more inspired by his native Wicklow than by the brooding grandeur of the wild German mountains.