Important Fine Art and Aboriginal Art
30 November 2016


(1917 – 1996)

oil on canvas on composition board

94.0 x 43.0 cm

signed upper right: O’BRIEN

$60,000 – 80,000
Sold for $97,600 (inc. BP) in Auction 46 - 30 November 2016, Sydney

The Johnstone Gallery, Brisbane (label attached verso)
Richard and Joan Crebbin Collection, Sydney, acquired from the above, June 1970
Mrs Joan Crebbin, Sydney


Merioola and after, S. H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 12 July – 17 August 1986; Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Newcastle, 28 August – 5 October 1986; Geelong Art Gallery, Geelong, 16 October – 16 November 1986, cat. 71


France, C., Merioola and after, S.H. Ervin Gallery, National Trust, Sydney, 1986, p. 26

Catalogue text

With a haughty expression seamlessly in line with the rigid formal composition of his portrait painted by Justin O’Brien, the teenage boy within Boy in Costume, c.1949 appears dignified beyond his years. While he was best known for his considered and anachronic paintings of Catholic iconography, Justin O’Brien’s most powerful and sensitive works were the portraits he painted of young men, many of whom he taught at a private school in Sydney from 1947 – 1968.

In the late 1940s, the young artist had recently returned to Sydney, leaving behind the trauma he had suffered as a prisoner of war in Tolin, Poland during World War Two. He settled in Woollahra, in a large house Merioola, along with many other artists and creatives, including Donald Friend, Michael Kmit, Margaret Olley and Russell Drysdale. Grouped under the label of Sydney Charm School, used disparagingly by the critic Robert Hughes in 1966, the artists in the Merioola group undertook collaborative and interdisciplinary projects. They found common ground in the creation of art for art’s sake, focussing primarily on the decorative, poetic and spiritual possibilities of art rather than the social realism that was being practiced in Melbourne during the same period.

Boy in Costume is an outstanding example of O’Brien’s portraiture of this period, featuring stylistic devices for which he was renowned: a rich tapestry of colour and carefully observed texture, his idiosyncratic pseudo-byzantine stylisation of facial features and flattened treatment of the pictorial plane. This portrait has an extraordinarily rich and worked surface, characterised by etched lines into thick layers of paint in the wallpaper and shirtsleeves and scraped upper layers of paint in the boy’s ruff and velvet leggings. These formal elements have a greater complexity than similar portraits of the same period, notably Boy in Costume, c.1948 held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria – a portrait of the same sitter against the same wallpaper of powdered tones. O’Brien’s use of rich, saturated colour and elongated forms in the 1940s led critics to draw parallels with Byzantine art, postulating that he may have come across this style during his military service in occupied Greece.

Christine France, in her 1987 monograph Justin O’Brien: Image and Icon, suggests instead that the artist’s stylisation had much more in common with the School of Paris, particularly Modigliani and Picasso.1 Boy in Costume supports this hypothesis, continuing the legacy of Picasso’s melancholic harlequin and acrobat paintings of his famous Rose Period (1901 – 1905), themselves informed by the work of the French 18th century court painter, Antoine Watteau.2 The classical three-quarter profile of this boy in costume projects an evasiveness and emotional distance consistent with the deception inherent in the dramatic figure of the Harlequin, borrowed from 16th century itinerant entertainers of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. This portrait can be read as a tender study of teenagehood – the complexity of identity and search for a place in the world – the boy is portrayed to the world as both a performer and a multi-faceted individual.

1. France, C., Justin O’Brien. Image and Icon, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1987, p. 15
2. Carmean, E. A. Jnr., Picasso – The Saltimbanques, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980, p. 19