TWO FIGURES IN A ROOM, c.1990 – 93

Important Australian + International Fine Art
10 April 2019


(1917 – 1996)
TWO FIGURES IN A ROOM, c.1990 – 93

oil on canvas

98.5 x 70.5 cm

signed upper left: O’BRIEN

$150,000 – 250,000

Australian Galleries, Sydney
Art Galleries Schubert, Queensland
Private collection, United Kingdom, acquired from the above c.1998


Paintings by Justin O’Brien, Australian Galleries, Sydney, 26 – 31 July 1993; Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 9 August – 4 September 1993, cat. 1 (illus. on exhibition invitation)


Heathcote, C., ‘Arts’, The Age, Melbourne, 20 August 1993, p. 16 (illus.)

Catalogue text

For an artist who had resided in Italy for over thirty years, Justin O’Brien continued to be remarkably well loved and respected by the members of the Sydney art world. In July 1993, the artist, recently awarded with an Order of Australia (AM), returned to Sydney briefly to attend a special one-week sell out exhibition of his paintings at Australian Galleries. Months earlier, the gallery’s director had announced somewhat prematurely to the press the closure of its Sydney branch.1 The first exhibition of paintings by O’Brien to be held Sydney in three years was received as a de facto swansong for the long-standing gallery with a luncheon held in the artist’s honour, with art world elites, collectors and artists alike, in attendance.2 The whole event was even televised for the nightly 7.30 report on ABC television.3

This beguiling interior was the largest painting in the exhibition, catalogue number one of twenty-four oils, and the culmination of decades of artistic investigations in the genre of still life, and rich interiors populated by languorous women and poised children. The gallery director boasted at the time this particular painting was so sought after, he could have sold it ‘four times’ over.4 This ornate and richly decorated interior, perfumed and bearing the heavy stillness of a humid summer’s day, can be identified as the living room of Sydney painter Margaret Olley’s home in Duxford St, Paddington. Several of O’Brien’s later paintings (including An Italian Family Visits Margaret Olley, 1991 and Interior No. 5, 1989 – 90) appropriate features of this room, the fruit of a long and artistically fertile friendship between the two painters that dated back to their days residing together in the Merioola residence in Woollahra during the late 1940s. Delighting in the filtered light flooding through the French windows and sensory riches of Olley’s home, O’Brien exclaimed ‘everywhere you look, there is another still life just waiting to be painted’.5 A floral arrangement of cornflowers on the table in this painting perhaps a clin d’oeil to the magnanimous owner of the house.

The warm palette of this interior is suffused with late afternoon light, raking across the patterned cushions and horizontal surfaces laden with arrangements of fruit and flowers. It is a composite image created with familiar motifs of Justin O’Brien’s visual lexicon – such as a verdant view through a window which featured many times including in The Window, No. 2, 1978, and the standing figure, which appears again in the aforementioned painting An Italian Family Visits Margaret Olley. The partially nude seated figure in the foreground, however, is reminiscent of an earlier painting from the late 1980s (offered by Deutscher and Hackett in May 2016), modelled by a young Daniela Scardamaglia.6 Anchoring the composition of this interior around the contrasting forms of a reclining nude and a clothed female figure in the background, O’Brien pays clear homage to two masterpieces of Western Art, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538 and Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863.

1. Owens, S., ‘High Jackings go on display’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 25 July 1993, p. 150
2. Pearce, B. and Wilson, N., Justin O’Brien. The Sacred Music of Colour, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2010, p. 170
3. ‘Sydney art community gathers for latest exhibition of artist Justin O’Brien’, The 7.30 Report, segment, 5:52 min, broadcast 26 July 1993, ABC-TARA #216870
4. Dwyer, C., ‘O’Brien’s Bonanza’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 4 August 1993, p. 26
5. The artist to Heather Rusden, 1989, in France, C., Justin O’Brien: image and Icon, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1997, p. 36
6. Egidio and Daniela Scardamaglia, a young Roman couple were close friends of the artist during his expatriate years, and both modelled frequently for the painter.