O'Kelly, Aloysius C. (1853–c.1941), painter and illustrator, was born in Dublin, son of John Kelly, blacksmith, from Roscommon, and Bridget Kelly (née Lawlor) from Queen's Co. (Laois). He emigrated to London in 1861, where he, like the rest of his family, adopted the Irish prefix ‘O'. Aloysius was the youngest of this political and artistic family, the most notable member being James J. O'Kelly (qv), soldier, journalist, and MP. His other brothers, Stephen and Charles, were sculptors; his sister Julia married Charles Hopper, brother-in-law of the Fenian leader, James Stephens (qv).
In 1874 O'Kelly was among the first Irish artists to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under the orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme and with Léon Bonnat. Although he also worked in Paris and Fontainebleau, he painted mainly in Brittany. Here, under the additional influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage, his paintings displayed a marked eclecticism as he oscillated between a type of rural realism and naturalism, with hints of the pleinairism of the pseudo-impressionist style. In his interiors, he reverted to a traditional genre style while his landscapes displayed considerable technical verve, as well as a knowledge and understanding of the more avant-garde trends of the time. He seems to have had a clear understanding of Breton separatism, and perceived underlying similarities with the interrelationship of history, religion, land, and nationalism in Ireland.
He was one of the first artists to paint in the new realist mode in the west of Ireland, where he painted ‘Mass in a Connemara cabin’. In the early 1880s he was appointed as special artist to the Illustrated London News, for which he produced a remarkable suite of illustrations highlighting the Land League. Here he adopted a dissident role which projected the west of Ireland as the repository of the spiritual, cultural, and social values of the imagined nation.
In 1884, working for the Pictorial World in the Sudan, his sympathies lay with the self-proclaimed prophet, the Mahdi, in his efforts at expelling imperial forces from his country. In Cairo O'Kelly painted many typical orientalist scenes – games of draughts, street and bazaar scenes, desert scenes, and mosque paintings – but avoided the emblems of orientalism which justified colonial domination. By representing such societies as backward or ‘other’, orientalists were collusive in the imperial project, but O'Kelly is unusual in that while working in the orientalist style, he was not ideologically so himself.
In 1895 he took the extraordinary step of changing his name, sporadically thereafter submitting work under the name of Arthur Oakley. He emigrated to New York in 1895, but in 1897 proposed himself for election in the Roscommon South constituency on the death of Luke Hayden, the Parnellite MP; his brother, James J., sat for Roscommon North.
In New York he executed a number of political portraits, such as those of John Purroy Mitchel, mayor of New York city, and Senator James A. O'Gorman. Some of his most captivating paintings are of a quintessential American subject, Huckleberry Finn, at least one of which is said to have been commissioned by Mark Twain himself. Well received in the US, O'Kelly moved around the art colonies of America, as well as returning frequently to France to paint. His last dated work is 1924. It would appear that he returned to France, living in Paris, where he died during the second world war.
Although described in the house of commons as a ‘young painter of genius’ and admired by Vincent Van Gogh, O'Kelly remained a shadowy figure who effaced his much-travelled footsteps. Living with his uncle, John Lawlor (qv) (one of the renowned sculptors of the Albert Memorial), he first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1876. Among other venues, he also exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours and the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in London; the Walker Gallery, Liverpool; the Manchester City Art Gallery; the RHA, Dublin; the National Academy of Design; the New York Water Color Club (of which he was a member); the American Water Color Society and the Society of American Artists in New York; the Art Institute, Chicago; the Corcoran Gallery, Washington; the Boston Art Club; and the Paris Salon. A major retrospective exhibition of his work took place in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, in 1999–2000. A full bibliography appears in Niamh O'Sullivan, ‘The life and work of Aloysius O'Kelly: citizen-artist’ (Ph.D. thesis, NUI, 2000)