Inspired by seventeenth century Dutch genre painters like Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals, George Bernard O’Neill was a painter drawn to creating quiet works of art. He often painted children at play or friends and families enjoying music together. O’Neill periodically painted portraits and towards the end of his career his subject matter often had a more historical perspective, but he was best known for his domestic scenes. Born in Dublin, Ireland on July 17, 1828, O’Neill was the ninth of fifteen children. In 1837 his family moved to London, where he began studying at the Royal Academy Schools. Ten years later he began exhibiting his paintings regularly at the Royal Academy of Arts.
In 1857 O’Neill was married to Emma Stuart Callcott. While the couple kept their London home during the winter months, they made their permanent residence in Cranbrook, Kent. Their timber-framed home was named Old Willesley. Emma was related to the artist John Horsley, and through her family’s connection to the art world, O’Neill was introduced to the Cranbrook Colony. Cranbrook consisted of a group of six artists whose work focused on domestic and familial subjects – Frederick and George Hardy, John Horsley, Augustus Mulready, Bernard O’Neill, and their leader Thomas Webster. In their paintings they captured the everyday life, the challenges of old age, and the beauty of family and religion. Their success as artists was in part due to their easy access to London as well as their proximity to the beautiful English countryside. In the city, they would exhibit and sell their paintings, and in Kent, they would find inspiration for their work. O’Neill took an active role in the Cranbrook community by joining both the Literary Association and the Croquet Club. In London, he helped establish the Etching Society, and was one of the leading members of the Art Union of London.
The Colony artists were a closely-knit group and during his time in Kent, O’Neill would occasionally make joint paintings with his peers. In 1840, he painted The Surprise with another one of the Colony’s members, George Hardy, a painting that now resides in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. O’Neill would also often use his home as the setting for his many artworks, as well as one of his many children as models; Not Forgotten depicts his daughter Constance, and The Despatch shows his Kent residence. While O’Neill was sometimes criticized for cluttering his compositions with too many objects, but was praised for his cheerful subject matter. Primarily his works were able to resonate with his audience. He learned compositional techniques through studying works of the Dutch realist artist Pieter de Hooch. O’Neill was also a friend and supporter of James McNeil Whistler. Despite their very distinct styles, they both felt an artist’s intent was what gave each painting its substance.
In 1886, with the death of Thomas Webster, the artists of Cranbrook started to go their separate ways. O’Neill and his wife left their home in Kent and returned to London, and for the next 31 years, until his death, O’Neill painted increasingly infrequently. In 1893, he stopped exhibiting his paintings, and while his work became less popular over time, his subject mater resonated with the Victorian art lovers of his time. O’Neill died September 23rd, 1917 in London. Many of his paintings still reside there today.
Written by Kira Romano
1828 Born 17th July in Dublin, Ireland
1837 Family leaves Ireland to settle in Woolwich, London
1845 Studies with the Royal Academy Schools
1857 Marries Emma Stuart Callcott
1860 Daughter Constance is born
1861 Daughter Kathleen is born
1859 Joins Cranbrook Colony
1863 Son Bernard is born
1865 Daughter Alice is born
1867 Son Harry is born
1869 Son Frank is born
1875 Son Norman is born
1886 O’Neill and family move back to London
1917 Dies September 23rd in London
Art Union of London
1847 Royal Academy of Arts (1856, 1860, 1877)
Works by the artist may be found at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, National Portrait Gallery London, Tait Britian, Victoria and Albert Museums, and Royal Academy of Arts.
"George Bernard O'Neill (1828-1917)." Cranbrook Colony of Artists. cranbrookmuseum.org.
Mitchell, Rosemary Ann. "George Bernard O'Neill (1828-1917)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Baird, Olga. “George Bernard O’Neill”. The Cranbrook Colony: Fresh Perspectives. Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 2010.
"George Bernard O'Neill." The Weald of Kent, Surrey & Sussex - People History and Genealogy.