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Lucius Richard (LR) O'Brien

 (1832 - 1899)
Lucius Richard (L.R.) O'Brien was active/lived in Ontario / Canada.  Lucius OBrien is known for landscape, still life and figure painting, graphics, illustration, teaching.

Lucius Richard (L.R.) O'Brien

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Lucius Richard (L.R.) O'Brien
Lucius Richard O'Brien was a very a prominent Canadian painter, graphic artist, illustrator and educator.  He was a founder and President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts*; a founder of the Ontario School of Art; and one of the first artists to travel the breadth of Canada.  His paintings depict the country's scenery from Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick to Vancouver Island, British Columbia; and, they are among the first pieces collected by the National Gallery of Canada,130 years ago.

Born in Shanty Bay, Ontario (on Lake Simcoe, 15 miles south of Orilla, and 50 miles north of Toronto), he died in Toronto where he had lived since about 1870.

Most of his works are watercolors; however, he did paint in oils in the late 1870s and early 1880s; and, early in his career (1840s and 1850s), he did satirical drawings which were made into wood engravings for illustrations.  The subjects of his mature work include portraits, genre (Indians, frontier life), allegory and still life; but, the vast majority of his paintings are landscapes of Canada - mountains, rivers, forests, plains, lakes, waterfalls, harbors, shorelines, etc.  The list of his travels (below) is also a list of his subject locations.

Quote: "…Canadian artists should help to represent Canada by such portrayal as they can give of the picturesque aspects of her scenery & life… Pictures and drawings of Canadian life and scenery… would materially help to make the country known and understood." - Lucius R. O'Brien (1)

His styles were Realism*, Romanticism*, Symbolism* and Luminism*.  His paintings are often described as comparable in style to those of Albert Bierstadt (2) and members of the Hudson River School*. AskART Image Examples have some good illustrations of his work.

O'Brien was a self-taught artist who worked as a civil engineer and painted as a hobby until 1872 when he became a full-time artist.  He did however attend Upper Canada College, Toronto (3) and while there, probably, studied art under John G. Howard (1803 - 1890) (4).

His career as an educator is highlighted by the founding of the Ontario School of Art in 1876 (5), while he was Vice-President of the Ontario Society of Artists, under whose auspices the school operated until 1881.  He taught watercolor painting, there, and served on the school's management council until 1883 (6).

For over two decades at the height of his career (1870s and 1880s) O'Brien traveled frequently and far, impressive when considering the commonly available 19th-century modes of travel - trains, stagecoaches and sailboats.

The extensive list of locations he visited, and painted, in Canada includes: the Ottawa, Owen Sound, and Lake Erie regions of Ontario (1873); the Ottawa valley (1875 and 1876); Baie des Chaleur, New Brunswick -  south of Gaspe -  (1877); Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick - Bay of Fundy -  (1878); Quebec City (1879); the Rocky Mountains (1886), Victoria, B.C.(1887); and Vancouver, B.C. and Howe Sound (1888).

O'Brien's travels outside Canada included: France and England (1869); Philadelphia (1876); Gloucester, Massachusetts (1877); Boston (1879); England (1883); and New York City (1892 and 1894). (7)

As a leader in the art community, he played a senior role in the establishment of two of Canada's oldest and most venerated art institutions: the Ontario Society of Artists* (1872) of which he served as Vice-President (8) (1874 - 1880); and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts* (9) (1880) of which he served as its first President (1880 - 1890).  He is also considered a member of the informal group known as the Railway Painters* and the founder of the short lived Palette Club, which exhibited in 1893 and 1894.

He exhibited with the American Society of Painters in Watercolor* in 1871; with the OSA from 1873 (first OSA show) until 1886; the National Academy of Design, New York in 1878; the RCA from 1880 to 1899; the Art Association of Montreal (10) from 1880 to 1892 and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, England in 1887.  He also exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 and the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, England in 1886.

Posthumously, his works are frequently included in exhibitions that examine the history of Canadian art and Canadian landscape painting, some examples are: "Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art", National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1967); "Our Own Country Canada", National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1978); "Heroes and Heroines", Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (1978); "Okanada", the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste), Berlin, Germany (1982); "Speaking about Landscape, Speaking to the Land", Art Gallery of Ontario (2003); "Book Illustration by Canadian Painters", National Gallery of Canada (2004); "Vistas - Artists of the Canadian Pacific Railway", Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta (2009); and "Expanding Horizons: Painting and Landscape Photography of American and Canadian Landscape 1860 - 1918", Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and touring (2009 - 2010).

In 1990 the Art Gallery of Ontario had the first major retrospective of his work, "Lucius R. O'Brien: Visions of Victorian Canada". (11)

His works are avidly collected. They are also in numerous public collections. According to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* there are 196 Lucius O'Brien works in museums across Canada. They include the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston, Ontario), the Art Gallery of Alberta (Edmonton), the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery (Concordia University, Montreal), the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (Halifax), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Quebec (Quebec City), Museum London (Ontario), the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Manitoba), the Vancouver Art Gallery (B.C.), and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (B.C.). The National Gallery of Canada has 30 Lucius O'Brien paintings in its collection, including the oil on canvas "Sunrise on the Saguenay, Cape Trinity", dated 1880, which was one of the first paintings acquired (12).

Also, two of his works have been in the British Royal Collection, currently, that of HM Queen Elizabeth II, since 1881. (13)

Examples of his illustrations are in "Picturesque Canada: The Country As It Was and Is" (1882), edited by George Munro Grant and L.R. O'Brien; Belden Bros, Toronto (870 pages).

As an important Canadian artist his work is illustrated and discussed in most books about Canadian art history. There is also the monograph Lucius R. O'Brien: Visions of Victorian Canada (1990), by Dennis R. Reid, published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name.


(1) Source: Lucius R. O'Brien: Visions of Victorian Canada (1990), by Dennis R. Reid (see AskART book references).

(2.1) All artists, teachers, influences and associates mentioned in this biography and its footnotes, except those with bracketed birth and death dates after their names, have their own pages in AskART.

(2.2) Bierstadt was a friend of Governors General Lord Dufferin and Lord Lorne; he visited them in Ottawa and Quebec in the 1870s and 1880s, where O'Brien met him. Source: A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1973), by Dennis Reid (see AskART book references).

(3) Upper Canada College is today a leading independent school for boys. It was much the same when O'Brien attended it over 160 years ago. It was founded in 1829 to serve as a feeder school for the newly founded King's College (later the University of Toronto). UCC was modeled after the great public schools of Britain, most notably Eton College. Source: Common knowledge and Upper Canada College

(4) Source: J. Russell Harper, The Canadian Encyclopedia 1985, by Hurtig Publishers Ltd.

(5) Called the Ontario School of Art from its founding until 1931, the Ontario College of Art from 1931 to 1996 and the Ontario College of Art and Design from 1996.

(6) He also opened his own informal art school in 1890 called the Studio Drawing Club.

(7) Sources: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald; Dictionary of Canadian Biography (2000) Dennis Reid; University of Toronto/Université Laval - online; and, Lucius R. O'Brien : A Victorian in North America : American Influence On His Early Work, 1873 - 1880 (1990), by Elizabeth Mulley (Masters thesis) . Most sources generally agree with the dates. Elizabeth Mulley, however, whose thesis concerns the influence of American art on O'Brien's, has uncovered trips by him to New York and elsewhere in the US as early as 1859. She theorizes that his travels south of the border were much more frequent than commonly thought (thesis page 42).

(8) Vice-President was the senior elected position; the position of President was honorary and, at that time, conferred on W.H. Howland, a collector. Source: Passionate Spirits by Rebecca Sisler (see AskART book references).

(9) In 1879, O'Brien petitioned the newly arrived Governor General Lord Lorne, as he had his predecessor Lord Dufferin, to expand the roll of the OSA to that of a national organization. Lorne had the idea of the RCA and used O'Brien as his connection with the art community to help make it happen. Sources: The Centre for Canadian Contemporary Art (online) and Passionate Spirits by Rebecca Sisler (see AskART book references).

(10) The AAM became the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1948.

(11) The primary sources for exhibition details are the catalogues in the archives of the Art Gallery of Ontario (and online); The Centre for Canadian Contemporary Art (online); The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar and the Mulley Thesis (noted above).

(12) Acquired in 1880, the same year the gallery was founded, its acquisition number is 113, current (2010) numbers are over 42,900. An illustration of Sunrise on the Saguenay was also used for the 35 cent Canadian stamp, issued in 1980.

(13) They are: the oil on canvas, Quebec from Pont Lévis and the oil on canvas, The King's Bastion, Quebec.  Both are dated 1881 and both were acquired that year by HM Queen Victoria.  Source:

 * For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.


** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

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About  Lucius Richard (L.R.) O'Brien

Born:  1832 - Shanty Bay, Ontario, Canada
Died:   1899 - Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Known for:  landscape, still life and figure painting, graphics, illustration, teaching