Important Fine Art + Aboriginal Art
2 December 2015


(1917 – 1996)

oil on canvas on composition board

82.0 x 60.0 cm

signed upper right: O'BRIEN
bears inscription on Macquarie Galleries label verso: ... SKYROS INTERIOR

$50,000 – 70,000
Sold for $63,440 (inc. BP) in Auction 41 - 2 December 2015, Sydney

Macquarie Galleries, Sydney (label attached verso)
Roy and Nancy Melick, Sydney
Estate of Nancy Melick OAM, Sydney


Recent paintings and drawings by Justin O’Brien, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney 16 – 28 October 1968, cat. 2

Catalogue text

Skyros Interior, c. 1967, is a significant work that reveals various influences and events of Justin O’Brien’s life. The Greek island of Skyros was particularly special to the artist, a place he revisited several times over the years, drawn to its beauty. The first visit occurred in 1964 when O’Brien departed from Sydney with fellow artist Jeffrey Smart. Spending four idyllic months on Skyros, they rented a quaint fisherman’s cottage next to the ocean, which O’Brien would rent again three years later with the artist Donald Friend.1 One can imagine O’Brien opening the aqua door pictured in Skyros Interior, taking in the morning light and the view of the landscape that was so intoxicating to the artist. ‘Skyros is an enchanting island… figs, pomegranates, vast vineyards, mulberry trees heavy with fruit… All this side by side with great stark mountains and Cyclonean walls. It has a biblical aura and a sense of mystery… I have tried to catch some of the extraordinary lushness and the exotic splendour of that unforgettable view.’2

The features of the picture on offer were used in various paintings, portraying the same door, interior architecture and table of the homely cottage. Skyros Interior is indeed a mirror image of Still Life with Angel Fresco, c. 1971-72 and Fruit and Flowers with Fresco, c.1967-68, both of which feature the same wooden table and the aqua door, whilst the vase of flowers and the bowl of figs in the latter work are replicated exactly in Skyros Interior.

Each of these interiors depicts a different religious fresco reminiscent of the Renaissance masters. In Skyros Interior, the fresco is particularly impressive as it can also be seen as a mirror reflecting the image of the room behind, where the artist has removed himself and the table along with the objects on top of it. The fresco or reflection appears to open up into a separate room complete with a domed ceiling, arched doorway and a religious alter that depicts an image of the Virgin and Christ and a larger portrayal of the Virgin or perhaps another Saint, creating an optical illusion between the two rooms. Combining two of his favourite genres in one arrangement, equal deference is paid to both the still life and the religious imagery. The second room is skilfully depicted in the realistic manner of traditional frescoes as the paint is given a distressed appearance revealing the plaster underneath. It was this application of paint and use of light and tonal shades that cemented O’Brien’s reputation as a master of colour. The artist and critic James Gleeson commented after viewing O’Brien’s exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in 1950, ‘O’Brien uses colour as a composer uses sound.’3

Despite the various elements of this composition, O’Brien maintains restraint and the overall painting is beautifully simplistic and poetic, suffused with a sense of warmth and joy that demonstrates O’Brien’s love affair with Skyros and the time that he spent there.

1 France, C., Justin O’Brien: Image and Icon, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1987, pp. 23-24
2 O’Brien, J., cited in Pearce, B., and Wilson, N., Justin O’Brien: The Sacred Music of Colour, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, p. 118
3 Ibid.