O’BRIEN, JOHN DANIEL O’CONNELL, painter; b. 30 Nov. 1831 in Saint John, N.B., only son of Daniel O’Brien and Jane Smith (Smyth); d. unmarried 7 Sept. 1891 in Halifax.
John Daniel O’Connell O’Brien, whose grandparents had emigrated from Ireland, was named for the Irish “Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell. Shortly after his birth, the family relocated in Halifax, where his father continued his trade as a “hairdresser and ornamental hair manufacturer.”
Before John O’Brien, at age 21, announced himself professionally in the Morning Chronicle as a “Marine painter,” he had been producing paintings of naval squadrons and yachting subjects as well as ship portraits for three years. Local portraitist William Valentine* had died in 1849, and in effect O’Brien may be seen as his successor. His maritime content reflects both his status within the community and Halifax’s consciousness of its importance as a strategic port. Virtually self-taught, O’Brien learned his craft by copying prints and illustrations. American and English prints were widely available in Halifax bookshops, and O’ Brim’s earliest extant work, Yacht race (1850), may have been modelled after an 1843 lithograph by the English artist J. Rogers. An explicit source was the work of Edwin Weedon, whose regatta and ship-portrait illustrations in the Illustrated London News O’Brien appropriated in the early 1850s.
In 1857 Haligonian factions competed to raise a subscription for the promising artist to study abroad. The campaign followed O’Brien’s presentation of a portrait to James William Johnston*, who became premier on 24 February, and his Halifax Yacht Club regatta (1857), commissioned for the club’s 20th anniversary. Prominent lawyer Henry Pryor claimed a leading role in the campaign, apparently to enhance his chances of election as mayor later that year.
O’Brien’s nine months in England between July 1857 and March 1858 constituted his only studies abroad. Before his departure he had acknowledged British marine painter John Wilson Carmichael as a contemporary model for his artistic career, based on his sketches in the Illustrated London News, and he became Carmichael’s pupil in London. This study would lead O’Brien to distort his natural sense of clarity, as well as his poetic grasp of atmospheric elements, into a turbid, quasi-Turneresque style. While in London he wrote to his father that he had also “engaged to take lessons in coloring photographs, at one of the best establishments” and that he was attending evening lectures at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Returning to Halifax in April 1858, O’Brien advertised instructions in landscape and marine painting at his waterfront studio, but by mid November he was colouring photographs for Wellington Chase. In early 1860 the Morning Chronicle reported that O’Brien had gone to Boston “to seek advice for impaired vision consequent upon painting the banners for the Catholic Temperance Society.” This misfortune occurred at a time when in Halifax Harbour the sailing vessels O’Brien had painted were being replaced by steam-powered ships and the new technological age was evident in the building of the Intercolonial Railway. The arrival in Halifax of English artist and naval draftsman Forshaw Day in 1862 must also have presented a challenge. O’Brien reconciled himself to being part of a “demi-monde” of artisans, describing himself as “Artist and Decorative Painter” in the 1866–67 city directory. Only two paintings are known from the 1860s.
O’Brien’s father, who from the beginning had energetically promoted his son’s career, died in 1878. Possibly moved by this event to a sense of failure on his own part, O’Brien took up easel painting again. He painted several subjects in Yarmouth, including the Argyle, barque: departure and capsize (1880), a diptych whose Victorian theme is rendered in smooth impastos. Responding to Halifax’s astonishing cultural rebirth in the 1880s, when, as novelist and historian Thomas Head Raddall has written, “art, music, and literature came to the fore once more,” O’Brien painted almost two dozen of the 53 works now documented as his. They include panoramic views of the city, ship portraits, and the narrative set of three paintings of hms Galatea, which recalled an event from the 1860s. During his last years, however, a period that saw the installation in Halifax of the inaugural exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1881 and the incorporation of the Victoria School of Art and Design in 1888, John O’Brien remained virtually forgotten in the city and province where he had worked as the first Canadian professional marine artist. At the time of his death in 1891 a resident of the Halifax Poor’s Asylum, he was described in his interment record as “Barber.”
A comprehensive list of paintings done by O’Brien, identifying the galleries and private collectors by whom they are held, together with fuller documentation for his career, appears in P. C. Laurette, John O’Brien, 1831–1891 (Halifax, 1984). A number of the paintings are reproduced in that publication.
J. W. Carmichael, The art of marine painting in oil colours (London, 1864). Acadian Recorder, 27 Aug. 1857. Illustrated London News, 1851–52, 1855. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 28 July 1853, 22 Feb. 1860. Novascotian, 19 May 1831, 3 July 1854, 18 Jan. 1858. D. A. Sutherland, “The merchants of Halifax, 1815–1850: a commercial class in pursuit of metropolitan status” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1975). P. C. Laurette, “John O’Brien, artist: Maritime talent in the imperial context,” Canadian Collector, 19 (1984), no.4: 20–23. Harry Piers, “Artists in Nova Scotia,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 18 (1914): 150–51.
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Cite This Article
Patrick Condon Laurette, “O’BRIEN, JOHN DANIEL O’CONNELL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_brien_john_daniel_o_connell_12E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Patrick Condon Laurette|
|Title of Article:||O’BRIEN, JOHN DANIEL O’CONNELL|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||June 2, 2023|