Forming the Artist
Lavery & Osborne travelled to Europe at the same time in 1881. While they had similar mentors and are known to have had friends and acquaintances in common, there is no record of them ever having met.
Travel gave both artists access to new friends and fellow painters which shaped their painting styles. Osborne went to Antwerp, Lavery to Paris, and both lived in rural artists colonies in Brittany, leading to experimentation and development.
Along the way they chronicled the lives of their friends. But before the ‘like’ button, emojis and instant critique that comes from Facebook and Instagram, they showed their appreciation in their portraits of friends and the incorporation of new techniques into their work.
Mentors & Influences
The Academy and Charles Verlat
Osborne joined the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in 1876. Osborne’s talent was evident at a young age and he was always very aware of colour and tone. He was influenced by his father,William Osborne in the painting of animals. However Osborne senior painted horses in classical style whereas Walter Osborne was more observational and informal.
After the RHA, he moved to study at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. The academy at Antwerp attracted young Irish & British artists in greater numbers. Nathaniel Hill, Roderic O’Conor and later, in 1887, Dermod O’Brien would all study there. Osborne studied under Charles Verlat in his ‘Natuur’ class. Verlat initially had a great influence on his work, with Osborne’s subsequent work being highly detailed with strong characteristics of realism.
It would be some time into Osborne’s career before the painting of Verlat and the controlled brush handling would give way to a looser more relaxed technique, more akin to Whistler.
“Osborne’s pictures nearly always have a solid structure, even in his later work where his main preoccupation is with colour, tone and texture.”
Jeanne Sheehy (Walter Osborne, 1983, pg. 14)
A Grey Morning in a Breton Farmyard shows the influence of Verlat and the Antwerp training on Osborne’s technique, completed using painstaking detail. It demonstrates the tightness of handling associated with ‘Academy’ paintings of the time.
Osborne is likely to have used sketches to record the scene and the finished canvas was probably completed in the studio.
Atelier Julian and Bouguereau
Lavery went to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, popular with English speaking art students, Lavery was particularly drawn to the atelier Julian because of the teacher William Adolphe Bouguereau, who had considerable commercial success and was known for his classical realism.
Bouguereau was a very critical tutor and in conversation with Shaw Sparrow, Lavery spoke of the critical encouragement that he received:
“Pas mal or pas trop mal was about the most I got for encouragement. I discovered that what I thought were my strong points counted for little and that I had yet to understand what drawing really meant”.
(McConkey, Sir John Lavery, 1993, p.19)
In 1883 Osborne is believed to have moved to Brittany, where he spent time in Dinan, Quimperlé and Pont-Aven. Like many artists of the time he was attracted by the traditional and inexpensive Breton way of life, the interaction with other young artists and being able to spend eons of time outdoors painting.
At the time Pont-Aven was described as;
“a tranquil sleepy village, with one long street, terminating in a bridge over the Aven; the villagers, in their picturesque Breton costumes, providing the distinctive note so highly prized by painters.”
(Sheehy, 1983, p.17)
The artist Jules Bastien-Lepage was a major influence on many artists based in Brittany. Those who followed his technique were encouraged to embrace plein-air naturalism and painting with a “square brush” technique. It would have been difficult for Osborne to avoid the effect of Lepage and the French Realists on his work.
The predominant style of the plein air, naturalism movement is seen here in October by Jules Bastien-Lepage, where similarities in the exacting detail of the finished painting appear in Osborne’s Street Scene Quimperlé
Both works are set in realistic locations, with none of the popular Impressionist approaches to the colouring of light and shade apparent. Both the Bastien-Lepage and Osborne paintings are precise in their detail, in the women’s figures and the brickwork of the building respectively, to emphasise that this was a “true to life” scene they were painting.
After his sojourn in Brittany, Osborne set up base at his parents house in Rathmines, Dublin, but continued to travel in England, staying in rural hamlets and painting genre scenes. Osborne’s travelling companions during this time were Nathaniel Hill and Edward Stott. Osborne was an avid exhibition goer all his life and he reviewed many exhibitions including paintings by George Clausen.
Osborne remarked that in Clausen’s work Day Dreams there was;
“splendid colour and tone in the old woman’s head against a sunny field”
(Sheehy, 1983, p.19).
There is a similar handling here in Osborne’s Primary Education and Clausen’s Daydreams in the subtle halo around the figures heads.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Lavery and Osborne had a joint appreciation of Whistler. Whistler was a friend of Lavery’s and stayed with the Lavery family following the death of his wife.
Osborne appreciated the subtlety of Whistler’s painting, and Whistler’s influence on Osborne’s art is more apparent in his later sea and landscapes.
Jeanne Sheehy in Walter Osborne (1983 pg. 56) states;
“Osborne’s portraits have very little of the delicacy of Whistler’s, but his late landscapes sometimes come very close. Such pictures as The Horse Fair with its use of open spaces, the detail concentrated into a small area, recall Whistler’s oriental-looking landscapes. Osborne’s nearly abstract beach scenes are strongly reminiscent of Whistler’s work”
Pencil sketch of “A Girl” by James McNeill Whistler | Walter Osborne | c1899 | National Library of Ireland Catalogue | NC-NoC
Osborne sketched this image of Whistler’s Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander into one of his journals, his admiration for the artist and the composition of the portrait apparent in his copying of this work.
This portrait of Lavery’s daughter Eileen is Lavery’s homage to Whistler.
His young daughter poses in a similar way to Whistler’s subject in Harmony in Grey and Green and Lavery uses a similar monotone palette in grey and white to create the image.
Referring to this portrait Lavery writes that upon viewing the unfinished work Whistler;
“proceeded to tone the white paint on the picture in the most delicate manner possible conveying to me the impression that my work was too coarse and crude, and preventing me from painting with any vigour for nearly a year afterwards”
(Lavery, unpublished diary, 1924 via McConkey, Sir John Lavery, 1993 pg 81)