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 Madeleine O'Brien  (1873 - 1956)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: portrait, land-and seascape, coastal painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
This following biography was researched, compiled, and written by Geoffrey K. Fleming, Director, Southold Historical Society, Southold, NY, 2009.

MADELEINE O'BRIEN (April 16, 1873 - March 23, 1956)

Figure and landscape painter.  Born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Geraldine Hanley (1852-1917) and Joseph O'Brien (1836-1907).  Joseph was the owner of a very successful dry goods store located at 151 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, NY.  

The family's journey from Brooklyn to Bridgehampton, Long Island began when Joseph became ill while traveling on business and his doctor suggested going to the country to recover.  Joseph visited Bridgehampton, and was so taken with the place that he constructed a large summer home there near the Hamlet of Hayground, on the east side of Mecox Bay named "Listowell," which was completed in 1887.  This unusual name was apparently chosen to honor the town in Ireland from which his family had come.  The O'Brien family was a well known member of Brooklyn Society and soon became popular in Bridgehampton as well.

It is unclear exactly where Madeleine O'Brien's earliest influences came from relating to art, but in 1898 she was already ensconced at 218 Washington Avenue where she shared a studio with her friend and fellow artist, Emma Louise Munger (1875-a. 1941).  Their studio was regularly open for visitors on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of each month.  That summer, O'Brien traveled to study abroad with the well known painter Frieda Voelta Redmond (b. 1857).

During the summer of 1899 she began studying under Joseph H. Boston (1860-1954).  First at his summer art school located in Woodmont, Connecticut, and then the following year at the new art school that had been established by Boston in the Jefferson Building in Brooklyn.  She was a member of the Brooklyn Art Students Association during this period and was known for working in oil, watercolor, and pastels.  

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper reported in January of 1900 that "Miss Madeleine O'Brien is new in Brooklyn for the winter, after remaining late at Water-Mill, L.I., where she has a summer home.  Miss O'Brien has painted to some extent this summer and brings down to Brooklyn a number of sketches."

Some of her earliest exhibitions were held in her new studio at the Ovington Building (located at 246 Fulton Street in Brooklyn Heights) along with other fellow artists.  O'Brien quickly joined and exhibited at regional art associations and clubs.  One of her first was at the Brooklyn Art Guild, where she began exhibiting in 1900.  Later she would become an influential member of the Guild, helping it to represent the many female artists it counted amongst its members.

Like many others, she relied on local galleries to market her work.  The Sherk Gallery, one of the best known galleries in Brooklyn, began showing her work in one of their group exhibitions held in December of 1902.  But exhibitions were not easy to come by and so, in 1903, she co-founded a group called the "Six Women Associates," who exhibited together beginning that spring.  Again The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper reported on the event, noting that the exhibition was held in Madeleine O'Brien's studio and that she was joined by fellow artists "Miss Frances Bolton, Miss Edith L. Mead, Mrs. Mae Hopkins, Miss E. Louise Munger, and Miss Esther F. Stone."  The paper also noted that "Ms. O'Brien turns her attention more to figures more than landscapes."  Over time this group would add new members as old ones departed.

In the fall of 1903 O'Brien joined other female artists (including friend E. L. Munger) in traveling to New Hope, Pennsylvania to study under the noted landscape painter William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938).  The founder of the New Hope Art Colony, Lathrop was known as one of America's premier landscape painters during that period.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper decided, in 1904, to hold a contest for the design of their annual "Summer Resort Directory."  O'Brien was one of many, many artists to submit designs for the cover, but it was hers that would win the competition and its $100 prize.  The article that followed her win noted that she had completed several portraits of Brooklyn residents as well as " . . . many seascape sketches of Long Island."  

Fresh from her success, she organized a benefit exhibition in August of 1904 at her family's summer home to raise funds for the Bridgehampton Golf Club.  The Club already held a number of works by her hand, including those noted in the Eagle as being "decorative panels, symbolic of the game, and in composition and workmanship . . .   . . . very interesting."  The paper also noted that "Miss Madeline O'Brien and Mr. Wiley have donated a number of handsome pictures to the club this year.  Miss O'Brien's are her own handiwork."

In the fall of 1905, Madeleine O'Brien went on an extensive trip to the far west, where she sketched in Los Angeles and also traveled to Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Portland (where she visited the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition), Seattle, Victoria, and Vancouver, Canada.  New opportunities in New York included an exhibition of members of the Women's Art Club at the National Arts Club in Manhattan.  The Eagle made mention of her works specifically:  "Miss Madeline O'Brien had a canvas at the recent-exhibition of the Women's Art Club, of Manhattan.  It had for subject a bit of Bridgehampton scenery, where her summer home is located."  The summer of 1906 was spent manly in Bridgehampton where she was " . . . painting beach and sand dunes and bay subjects."

Life changed dramatically for Madeleine during the summer of 1907.  She joined the rest of the family, as usual, at "Listowell" where she planned to " . . . paint two or three portrait sketches."  Then, on July 28, 1907 her father, Joseph, died.  His death must have hit her hard because she disappears from the exhibition schedules at her regular locations, and by 1909 the Eagle reported that she was helping settle her father's estate and that she hoped to get back to the world of art soon.  This seems to never have materialized.

By the 1920's Madeleine and her siblings, including sisters Grace (1872-1938) and Geraldine (1884-1969), and their brother, John Fell O'Brien (1867-1928) - the famous art auctioneer - were enjoying life in Bridgehampton whenever possible.  They were involved with community events, such as the annual flower show.  The Eagle reported their support in 1927:  "Mrs. Daniel Downs is chairman of the Sixth Annual Flower Show to be held on Thursday and Friday of this week in the Bridgehampton Community House. Assisting Mrs. Downs are the Misses Grace and Madeline O'Brien."

The hurricane that swept across the north-east in September of 1938 wrecked and destroyed innumerable buildings and homes on eastern Long Island.  "Listowell" stood strong and was a place of refuge for many a stranded person.  Though the house survived the storm it was badly damaged and would no longer serve as the home it had once been.  It lingered as a symbol of another age until 1954 when the land was sold to a local farmer and the house was demolished.  Shortly before her death Madeleine contributed a short article about summer life in Bridgehampton during her childhood to be included in the upcoming publication, Bridgehampton's Three Hundred Years (1956).

Madeleine would remain in Bridgehampton until her death, which took place on Friday, March 23, 1956.  She was 82 years old.  Her remains were brought back to Brooklyn to be interred in the family plot located in the St. John's section of Holy Cross Cemetery.

Though Madeleine O'Brien did a number of portraits, her best known works were the land and seascapes that depicted Long Island, especially those that were views of the area located nearby her family's summer home in Bridgehampton.  They appeared more often at exhibition than her portraits, and appear to have been well received during her lifetime.  She also painted architectural landmarks nearby her home, including the Hayground windmill, which once stood just a short distance from "Listowell."

Madeleine O'Brien must have participated in many exhibitions during her brief career that currently remain unknown.  Her documented exhibitions include the following:  Washington Avenue Studios, Brooklyn, NY, c. 1898-1899; Ovington Building Studios, Brooklyn, NY, c. 1899-1907; Brooklyn Art Guild, Brooklyn, NY, c. 1900-1907; Mrs. Worth Osgood Residence, Brooklyn, NY, 1900; Annual exhibition of the Architectural League of New York, NY, 1900, 1903, 1906 (Where she exhibited a painting depicting the Hayground Windmill); Sherk Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, 1902, 1905; Six Women Associates exhibition at the Orvington, Brooklyn, NY, 1903 (spring and fall), 1904; Listowell Benefit Exhibition, Hayground, Long Island, NY, 1904; Arnold & Locke Exhibition, Brooklyn, NY, 1904; Six Women Associates exhibition at the Barnard Club, Brooklyn, NY, 1905-1906; and the Women's Art Club exhibition at the National Arts Club, NY, NY, 1905-1906.

O'Brien's works are scarce, and only a few are known to reside in private collections.  Her works are not known to be in any public collections at present (2009).

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