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John O’Brien (1831–1891)

John O’Brien

John O’Brien, The ARAB, Brigantine, and the MILO, Brig, off Halifax Harbour, 1856
Oil on canvas, 58.5 x 78.9 cm
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax

Ship portraits were in demand in the Halifax of the nineteenth century. They served as records of the shipowners’ accomplishments as well as insurance in case of the loss of a vessel, and every commercial port had its ship portrait painters, most of whom were only rudimentarily skilled. John O’Brien was an exception. Born to Irish immigrant parents in Saint John, New Brunswick, and raised in Halifax, as a young man he worked in sign painting and as a ship’s portraitist. Mostly self-taught, his talent was recognized by a group of Halifax business owners who, in 1857, paid for O’Brien to travel to England and France for formal studies. In London he studied with the marine painter John Wilson Carmichael (1800–1868).  On his return he continued his career, documenting the busy commercial and naval activity of Halifax Harbour.


O’Brien was a highly skilled painter who, on his travels in Europe, had absorbed the lessons of the salons and the Academies. One particular inspiration was the work of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), whose impact on the young artist is most apparent in O’Brien’s skies—with their dramatic cloud formations and wide contrasts in lighting—and in his romantic paintings of ships at sea.  His three paintings from 1888 of the British frigate HMS Galatea are notable in displaying his sense of the dramatic. The first painting shows the ship at anchor in Halifax Harbour, the second has it under a full press of sail in relatively calm seas, and the third depicts it in the midst of a hurricane, near foundering (all three paintings were gifted to the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts by Halifax ceramics artist Alice Egan Hagen [1872–1972] in 1955).


Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842, oil on canvas, support: 91.4 x 121.9 cm, Tate, London.
John O’Brien, HMS GALATEA, in a Heavy Sea, 1888, oil on canvas, 43.4 x 71.6 cm, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax.


Despite his reputation, O’Brien was unable to make a living solely as a painter, and in the 1870s he began working in a photographic studio. He suffered eye damage from the mercury fumes generated by the process, and his ability to paint was severely curtailed. He died after a long illness at the age of fifty-nine.


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