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He was born in Shanty Bay, Lake Simcoe Ontario, and after some architectural training became a civil engineer who liked to paint. At the age of forty he took up painting full time, and was one of the first artists to paint the Rockie and Selkirk Mountains. At one point the Canadian Pacific Railway apparently gave him the use of a train to travel in, which he could stop at will (other train traffic permitting) to paint where he wanted.
O'Brien was primarily a landscape painter, and the titles of his paintings during his exhibitions with the RCA from 1880 to 1907 were literally a chronology of his travels. Begining at Grand Maman and the Saguenay in 1880, he painted his way west from year to year, until finally "A last look at the prairie" was exhibited in 1887.
His paintings exhibited in 1888 started with the Selkirks and passed through scenes of the Fraser River Canyon, until titles like "A misty day, Burrard Inlet" and "Brockton Point, Vancouver" made their way onto the gallery walls. In 1889 scenes of Vancouver, Howe Sound, and Vancouver Island were displayed. In 1890, the year that some of his paintings were displayed by the Vancouver Art Association on loan from Mrs. Abbott, he was displaying scenes in an Academy exhibition that he had painted in Cornwall, Canterbury, and St. Ives in England. It is possible that he followed the "All Red Route" around the globe, but it is more likely that he returned to Eastern Canada by train and sailed to England from there.
The later titles of his paintings do not indicate that he travelled to British Columbia again, although the occasional Western title was displayed ("The Great Peak of the Selkirks", 1893 and "A Mountain at Banff", 1896, for example).
O'Brien was an important and prolific early painter of the West, although his short stay in the Province precluded what would have been a predominant and much-better remembered presence in the local history of art. It is possible, however, that the paintings from his visit here inspired some of the next wave of artists to arrive on these shores - the English - when sixteen of O'Brien's paintings were exhibited in England in the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition at South Kensington, London.
|1890 October 6 - 11||V.A.A. 1st Annual Exhibition||Landscape|
|Canyon, Fraser River|
|1932 May - July||VAG All Canadian Exhibition||Rough Weather, Perce Rock|
|German Rapids, Upper Saguenay|
|1938||The Tate Gallery, London
100 Years of Canadian Art
COTTAGES TO COMMUNITIES (refer to WVHS11)
THE FINE ARTS IN VANCOUVER, 1886 - 1930 (refer to THOM)
EARLY PAINTERS AND ENGRAVERS IN CANADA
(refer to H70)
Includes half page of references to O'Brien.
ROYAL CANADIAN ACADEMY OF ARTS -
EXHIBITIONS & MEMBERS 1880 - 1979 (refer to RCA81)
Extensive list of paintings and exhibitions
ARTISTS IN CANADA 1982 - UNION LIST OF ARTISTS' FILES (refer to AIC82)
MONTREAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS -
SPRING EXHIBITIONS 1880 - 1970 (refer to MM88)
O'Brien exhibited extensively with the Association from 1880-1898, and posthumously.
Numerous paintings of B.C. were exhibited in 1888 and 1889.
A DICTIONARY OF CANADIAN ARTISTS
(refer to M)
Good biography, list of over twenty references
BIOGRAPHICAL INDEX OF ARTISTS IN CANADA
(refer to BIAC03)
30 references cited for O'Brien.
VISTAS: ARTISTS ON THE CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY (refer to GLEN09)
ART INSPIRED BY THE CANADIAN ROCKIES, PURCELL
MOUNTAINS AND SELKIRK MOUNTAINS 1809-2012 (refer to TOWN12)
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