O'Sullivan, Seán (1906–64), artist, was born John O'Sullivan on 20 June 1906 in 44 St Joseph's Tce, Dublin, son of John O'Sullivan, carpenter, and Mary O'Sullivan (née Taylor). Educated at Synge St. CBS and Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he was taught by Seán Keating (qv), he received a scholarship to study lithography at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, and later went to study painting in Paris, where he became friendly with James Joyce (qv), Thomas McGreevy (qv), and Samuel Beckett (qv). Returning to Ireland in the late 1920s, he established a studio at 20 Molesworth St., later moving to more permanent premises at 6 St Stephen's Green in 1939. An annual exhibitor at the RHA, he was the youngest person ever elected to it when he was made an associate in 1928, gaining full membership in 1931. A principal exponent of what has been described as the ‘school of Irish academic realism’ (Arnold, 140), by the 1930s he was recognized as one of the best portrait painters in the country, along with his former teacher, Keating, and Leo Whelan (qv). He was especially noted for the quality of draughtsmanship and likeness; James White (1913–2003), director of the National Gallery of Ireland (1964–80), praised his ‘feeling for personality, and in particular male intelligence’ (Ir. Times, 4 May 1964), but argued that he failed to capture his female subjects in the same manner. His most accomplished portraits are of W. B. Yeats (qv) (Abbey Theatre), F. J. McCormick (qv) (Abbey Theatre), Éamon de Valera (qv) (Áras an Uachtaráin), and Douglas Hyde (qv) (Áras an Uachtaráin). His best work was done in the 1920s and 1930s, and the variety of different poses that he chose for his subjects brought an individuality to his work, setting him apart from more conservative painters such as Whelan. However, by the 1940s and 1950s many believed that the number of commissions he was accepting reduced the quality of his work and made it stereotypical; a critic remarked that his portraits of medical practitioners ‘are en masse a monotonous row of images, while individually they are often excellent character studies delicately drawn’ (A portrait of Irish medicine, 45). His later work was also adversely affected by heavy drinking. Working in oil, pencil, and charcoal, he portrayed the leading political and cultural figures of the Irish state over forty years.
In addition to portraits, he designed stations of the cross for the Church of the Little Flower, Ballintogher, Co. Sligo (1933); murals depicting a west of Ireland wedding for the Murals Bar, Tullamore, Co. Offaly (1942); commemorative stamps depicting Douglas Hyde (1943), Sir William Rowan Hamilton (qv) (1943), Edmund Ignatius Rice (qv) (1944), and the executed leaders of the Easter rising; and murals for Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda (1958). In the 1950s, at the behest of a private collector, he turned his attention to landscapes, painting a number of south and west of Ireland scenes, one of the best examples being ‘Lough Gill’ (oil, IMMA).
A fluent speaker of French and Irish, which he learned in the Kerry gaeltacht from Seán Óg Mac Murchadha Caomhánach (qv) (Seán a Chóta), in his youth he was a keen sportsman with a particular interest in boxing and fencing. During the second world war he served for a time in the Irish navy. While studying in London (c.1925) he married his wife Renée, who came from an Anglo-Dutch family. They had two daughters. In April 1964, while working on a portrait of the abbot of Mount St Joseph, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, he suffered a stroke, and died 3 May 1964 in Nenagh general hospital. One of the last portraits completed before his death was of Brendan Behan (qv). The largest collections of his work are in the National Galley of Ireland and National Museum of Ireland.