Justin O'BRIEN, Miraculous draught of the fishes Enlarge 1 /1

Justin O'BRIEN

Hurstville, New South Wales, Australia 1917 – Rome, Italy 1996

  • Europe 1940-44, 1947-49
  • Italy from 1967

Miraculous draught of the fishes c.1958 Description: triptych

Collection Title: Miraculous draught of the fishes
Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, drawing in pen and black ink and watercolour Support: three sheets of paper

Primary Insc: signed upper right in pen and black ink, 'O'Brien'. not dated.
Dimensions: left sheet 32.3 h x 10.5 w cm centre sheet 39.8 h x 20.4 w cm right sheet 32.4 h x 10.5 w cm overall 39.8 h x 47.4 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2000
Accession No: NGA 2000.460.A-C
Subject: Religious iconography
Image rights: Reproduced with permission of the artist's estate
  • Acquired from the artist by an unidentifed person, who owned the work until purchased by NGA.
  • Purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, from Christies Australia, Melbourne, December 2000;
  • From the auction, 'Australian & International Fine Art', Melbourne: Christies, 27 November 2000, lot 91.

In 1954, three years after winning the first Blake Prize for Religious Art, Justin O’Brien renounced Catholicism in favour of agnosticism. Yet, religion and the spiritual continued to be amongst the great themes in his art. They held a fascination for O’Brien from the early 1940s when, as a prisoner of war in Poland and Athens, he developed a passion for Greek Byzantine art.

After the war, O’Brien returned to Australia and between 1945 and 1947 lived at ‘Merioola’, a boarding house in Sydney, with other artists such as Donald Friend and Loudon Sainthill. This house became a kind of bohemian centre, with its tenants made up of artists, writers, actors or photographers. During 1948 and 1949, he returned to Europe, where he toured the great museums and absorbed the works of the Italian and Spanish masters. Duccio was perhaps the most influential on O’Brien’s triptychs of the 1950s. The compositional structure of The miraculous draught of the fishes shows direct reference to the Italian master, as do the detailed landscape elements, flat picture plane and rigid, detached figures in an apparent state of langour. Gestural elements are also very similar to those in Duccio’s works. Although there is an underlying sense of the drama and importance of the moment, it also possesses the same quiet stillness as in the works of Piero della Francesca.

The miraculous draught of the fishes, an ink and watercolour triptych, is typical of the detailed compositional drawings O’Brien prepared for his paintings. As an art teacher at Cranbrook School in Sydney for many years, he developed the strict attention to detail which is evident in much of his work. The theme of young, seemingly ageless fishermen is also one that reappears in O’Brien’s work throughout his career.

Anne McDonald, 2002.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002