Born in Hurstville, Sydney, in 1917, Australian painter Justin O’Brien is notable for his characteristically bright palate, and his use of religious imagery and symbolism.
Son of devout Roman Catholics, Tess and Maurice O’Brien, he was the third of six artistic children. A determined painter since his youth, at thirteen, O’Brien began private art lessons under Edward M. Smith, a teacher at the East Sydney Technical College and a known painter of religious themes, with whom he remained for four years.
Although most of his artistic success was experienced in Australia, including numerous solo shows since 1947, much of O’Brien’s artistic development is indebted to his experiences in Europe. His experiences abroad began in 1940 during WWII as part of the Australia Army Medical Corps. First in Palestine and then in German-occupied Greece, where he nursed seriously injured soldiers. Although a majority of his war-time artwork was completed in a prisoner-of-war camp in Torun, Poland, it was in Greece that he witnessed a sight that greatly impacted his artistic style: a mass grave of Greek civilian victims of famine. This experience overwhelmed young O’Brien who, upon his return to Australia, introduced symbolism into his painting to express what he saw in ' the Greek Burial’ (c1945) by employing a bright, simple palate with stylized figures and landscape.
O’Brien’s return from war saw great support from private patrons and Macquarie Galleries, at which he exhibited repeatedly throughout his career. The supportive climate in which he worked provided him with the ability to pursue and continue his mission to paint what he considered beautiful. A fundamental aspect of O’Brien’s artistic career is the friendships he kept throughout his life with artists like Jesse Martin, Peter Dodd, Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart and Donald Friend who served as collaborators, critics, and inspiration for his paintings. O’Brien is also credited with having influenced many Sydney artists. Much of this is due to his affiliations with various arts societies including Fra Angelico’s Painting Guild (c1939), the Contemporary Art Society in New South Wales (1939), the Sydney Group of Artists (1945) and the Merioola group (1945). However, his position as art master at the Cranbrook School in Sydney – a position he held from 1946-67 – provided him with many models for his paintings and led him to encourage many students, including artists Brian Dunlop, John Montefiore, Martin Sharpe, Owen Tooth, Peter Kingston and art historian Anthony Bradley.
Over his lifetime of painting, O’Brien’s art embraces and readdresses several motifs including moonlit figures, male bathers, Mediterranean landscapes, and religious scenes. Despite his great admiration of Cezanne, Raphael, Pierro della Francesca, El Greco and the Sienese painter Duccio, his style and use of colour has been attributed as being Symbolist and Fauvist. Although he renounced Catholicism in 1954, he is best known for the religious imagery in his work, a result of studying under Edward Smith, for which he was recognized as the inaugural winner of the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 1951.
In 1967 O’Brien moved to Rome, returning periodically to Australia until his death in 1996. After a lifetime of painting and teaching, O’Brien left behind a large body of works in the hands of private collectors and within Australian and international galleries.