O'Conor, Roderic Anthony (1860–1940), artist, was born 17 October 1860 in Miltown, Co. Roscommon, second child and eldest son of Roderic Joseph O'Conor, barrister and high sheriff (1863) of Co. Roscommon, and Eleanor Mary O'Conor (née Browne) of Co. Meath. The O'Conors were a leading catholic family, descended from the kings of Connacht; Roderic Joseph was from a junior branch but owned 640 acres around Milton House. In 1865 he moved his family to Dublin so that he could pursue his legal career. Roderic was educated by the Benedictines at Ampleforth College, Yorkshire, and was an outstanding pupil, winning prizes in a range of subjects. His art teacher was a well-known architectural painter, William James Boddy. Although O'Conor won no school prizes in art and was accepted by London University, he decided instead to enrol at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin in January 1879. He lived with his family at 88 Pembroke Road, and fellow art student Nathaniel Hill (1860–1930) lodged with them. O'Conor's ability was recognised in Dublin; he won the Cowper prize at the Metropolitan, and after transferring to the RHA for the year 1881–2 he took four more prizes. Back in the Metropolitan, he was runner-up in the prestigious Albert prize in 1883, and showed two works in the RHA. Later that year he left for the Beaux-Arts in Antwerp to study under Charles Verlat, following Walter Osborne (qv) and J. M. Kavanagh (qv) on what had become a well-worn path for Irish artists. He spent only a year in Antwerp and was not ranked highly among the students, though a painting he sent back to the RDS in April 1884 won him the £15 Taylor prize. Back in Dublin he studied at the NGI and showed four paintings at the RHA in 1885. After a year's ‘free study’ in the RHA (1885–6), he determined to go to Paris. This was the decisive move of his career; he spent the rest of his life in France and never lived or exhibited in Ireland again.
He once more followed in the path of former Irish artists – Frank O'Meara (qv), Helen Trevor (qv), and others – by enrolling at the atelier of Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. From an address at 4 Rue Darcet, he exhibited at the Paris Salon (May 1888), then the main forum for academic artists. The following year he showed at the avant-garde juryless Salon des Indépendants, having by then moved to Grez-sur-Loing, an artists’ colony outside Paris, founded in 1875 by Frank O'Meara and the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. His time at Grez helped free his line; he became an impressionist and experimented in techniques taken from Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro. It was a productive time for O'Conor: he showed ten works at the Salon des Indépendants in 1890, the largest number he was ever to show at a single exhibition, and became engaged to a Swedish artist, Eva Lowstadt. Their engagement was broken off after a year.
A few months’ stay in London, where he showed at the New English Art Club in 1891, was followed by another decisive move, this time to Pont-Aven in Brittany, made famous by Paul Gauguin. Breton subjects were frequent at RHA exhibitions, and O'Conor would have been aware that Brittany inspired earlier Irish artists, such as Osborne, Kavanagh, and Nathaniel Hone (qv). He spent the next thirteen years living on and off in Brittany and there enjoyed his most creative period. Like Gauguin, whom he befriended, O'Conor avoided imaginative and religious subject-matter and took inspiration only from external reality; his works are typically landscapes, still-lifes, and nudes, while portraits are always single figures and frequently peasants. His development as an artist owed much to his discernment and advanced tastes: he was among the first to recognise the genius of van Gogh, whose fiery, swirling colours can be seen in O'Conor's Pont-Aven landscapes. His work in general is characterised by bold colour and heightened intensity; in the first he prefigured the Fauves, and in the second the expressionists. Believing in art for art's sake, he exhibited rarely and was able to so indulge himself because he enjoyed a private income. On his father's death (1894) he was the main beneficiary of the will, and ten years later took advantage of the Wyndham land act to sell his Roscommon estate. Investing the proceeds in American stock trebled his capital; he was a wealthy man but lived a frugal, bohemian lifestyle. Though careful with his savings, he gave generously to impoverished artists and spent judiciously on art, acquiring an important avant-garde collection.
In 1904 he returned to live in Paris and again found himself part of a vigorous artistic community, this time in Montparnasse. A studio in 102 Rue de Cherche-Midi was home for the next three decades. Valuable accounts of his personality and lifestyle in this period come from his association with a group of American and British artists and writers, centred on Montparnasse's Chat Blanc restaurant. O'Conor was among the eldest and was held in awe for his gruff, unyielding demeanour and his strong, unorthodox opinions. Clive Bell wrote of a ‘swarthy man with a black moustache, tallish and sturdy. He carried a stick . . . the most formidable figure in the quarter’ (Bell, 163–4). This recalls his nickname among French artists: ‘le Père O'Conor’. Arnold Bennett characterised him as reserved about himself but free with his opinions. Somerset Maugham used him as a model for the painter O'Brien in The magician (1908) and Clutton in Of human bondage (1915); both are cynical, opinionated, and bitter. Maugham, however, brought out the worst in O'Conor, who despised him.
In Paris O'Conor consolidated his style and did not take on board abstraction or cubism. His work is always figurative. He showed a small number of paintings annually in the Salon d'Automne from 1903 but had little reputation outside certain avant-garde circles. In 1904 he was invited to show at the Irish painters exhibition, staged by Hugh Lane (qv) in Guildhall, London. He sent the surprisingly conservative ‘Jeune Bretonne’, which he afterwards presented to Lane. This was for many years the only one of his pictures in an Irish museum, except for a small self-portrait in the NGI, bequeathed by a collector, about which so little was known that it was assumed to be a portrait of Stalin.
As he grew older O'Conor became increasingly irascible but was saved from eccentric solitude by a late marriage (24 October 1933) to Renée Honta, formerly his model and thirty-four years younger than him. They were a devoted couple: he encouraged her to paint and bought in her name a large house in a small village in the Loire valley; she inspired him to emerge from his studio and resume outdoor painting. They spent 1934 and 1935 in Torremolinos, Spain, where O'Conor went back to an earlier, more informal style, but on their return to France he seems to have ceased painting through ill-health. He died five years later on 18 March 1940.
He left everything to his wife. She had no family so, on her death fifteen years later, left the estate to O'Conor's nephews and nieces, who auctioned everything off at Hotel Drouot in Paris on 6–7 February 1956. O'Conor's collection of other artists, including Modigliani, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec, brought in 14 million francs for his heirs. The top price paid for his own paintings was 50,000 francs (£51). He had no reputation, even in France. The great beneficiary of the auction was an English dealer, Henry Roland, who later described his discovery as one of the most exciting of his life. He bought 120 works, enough to hold five exhibitions over the next fifteen years at his gallery, Roland, Browse, & Delbanco, in Cork St., London. By the time of the retrospective at the Barbican, London (1985), O'Conor was being critically acclaimed as a considerable discovery from a remarkable period whose work, though eclectic and erratic, is direct, independent, and intense. In 1989 a work fetched £154,000. He is now considered one of the best Irish artists and is represented in museums worldwide. By the start of the twenty-first century his paintings were selling for over €650,000, prices only topped by Jack B. Yeats (qv), Walter Osborne, and Paul Henry (qv).