This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
Kathleen Laetitia O'Connor (1876-1968), artist, was born on 14 September 1876 at Hokitika, New Zealand, third child of Charles Yelverton O'Connor and his wife Susan Laetitia, née Ness. A lively mimic and tease, she was educated at Marsden School, Wellington, and from 1891 in Western Australia was taught privately. Kate studied art at the Perth Technical School under James Linton and taught the subject part time at Evelyn Hill's school, Perth, about 1902; she exhibited with the Western Australian Society of Arts before working briefly in Sydney as a decorator.
With her mother and sister Bridget, Kate sailed for Europe in 1905. She favoured wide hats which framed her blue eyes, strong face and golden hair. Some thought her vain—she always suppressed references to her age; to others she could have stepped out of a Manet painting. In London she studied at the Bushey School of Art under von Herkomer, Brangwyn and Marmaduke Flower.
She returned briefly to Perth in 1909 for Bridget's marriage to (Sir) Ernest Lee Steere. In Kate's view, the self-sacrificing role towards her mate inhibited a woman from being a successful artist. However she preferred men's company. She loved Byron, enjoyed shocking people, and abandoned Anglicanism for free-thought.
Commenting in 1910 on the new Western Australian Art Gallery, she closed with the quotation: 'Art is not the exclusive toy of a few prigs or the password of a cult. Art is universal, eternal, not parochial'. She settled in Paris, relishing its bohemianism; it was a daring decision for a young lady subsisting on a monthly allowance of £8. Kate wrote about her Parisian experiences for Perth newspapers.
Making her friends in shops, in the street, and at cafés (Café du Dome being a favourite), she attended night classes, and learned 'by looking at pictures and listening to discussions and criticisms' and by attending galleries and lectures. In 1911 she worked with Frances Hodgkins at her school of watercolour in Paris and at Concarneau, a fishing port. Associates were Bessie Gibson and the Canadian Emily Carr.
O'Connor exhibited in the Salons d' Automne (1911-32), des Independants, and de la Société des Artistes Français. She moved to London in 1914 and exhibited with the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1915 and the National Portrait Society in 1916, returning to Paris that year. In the 1920s she experimented with fabric painting, using bright floral patterns; the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, holds a vibrant velvet sample. Her 'quaint, gorgeous' fabrics were sold to Paris shops and fashion houses and she designed domestic interiors. In 1921 O'Connor took a one-roomed studio at 52 Avenue du Maine, her Paris home till World War II.
She spent 1927 in Australia where she designed fabrics and painted china and sunshades for Grace Bros Ltd's and David Jones Ltd's Sydney emporiums. But Australia palled—'I'd die if I stayed here'—and next year she returned to Paris. Again she wrote for Perth newspapers, particularly Town Talk. Kathleen adored Paris's artistic atmosphere; she knew notable painters and was close to Isaac Israels, Edouard Vuillard and the sculptor José Clara. She won favourable reviews and exhibited regularly: la Société Internationale des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs, 1934; Exposition des Femmes Artistes d'Europe, Musée du Jeu de Paume, 1937; Galéries J. Allard, 1937.
In 1940 O'Connor caught one of the last trains out of Paris before the Germans entered, subsisting on bread and water in a train that was bombed. She spent a lonely war in Britain, returning to Paris in 1946 to find her studio expropriated. She exhibited at Nice in 1948 and then came back, with 200 pictures, to Fremantle. A survey exhibition was held at the Art Gallery of Western Australia that year and she exhibited at Perth's Claude Hotchin Gallery in 1949, 1950 (and 1961). Perth was uncongenial. 'This is not a center of art', she wrote, and returned to Europe in 1951; no other Western Australian painter had spent so long at the hub of the world's art.
O'Connor held a one-woman show at Galérie Marseille, Paris, in 1953, but sold nothing. The old life was gone; studios were expensive and the cost of living exorbitant. Family financial support had probably always been necessary for her independence. Reluctantly she settled in Western Australia in 1955; her 'exercise in authentic self-exile' was over. She missed conversing in French, and resented Western Australia's rejection of her father, which had led to his suicide. Perhaps too, there was an uncompromising element in her personality; an old schoolfriend once commented after a reunion, 'I fancied you were too grand for me'.
Exhibiting in Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide, Kate won the Western Australian section of the Perth Prize Competition in 1958 and the B.P. prize, Commonwealth Games art competition, 1962. A retrospective show was held at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1967. Her work is in the National Library of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, and all State galleries.
O'Connor was a woman of firm character and opinions. She said, 'I don't paint things out of my head, my impression of something is what I see, nearly always what I see is what I paint'. While influenced by Impressionism and the intimistes, especially Vuillard and de Segonzac, she remained an individualist, with a strong sense of form, pursuing her own talent. Her oeuvre included small, intimate studies of strangers in public parks, as in her Luxembourg Gardens oils; large decorative still lifes; and portraits, by 1965 her preferred form. She painted on cardboard, employing different techniques, from broad brush to pointillist in portraits, and often used a palette knife. Her work is sensitive and talented, often melancholy, always civilized.
Interviewed in her eighties Kathleen retained her Parisian elegance, with rose-pink suit and vermilion hat, make-up and nail varnish, tortoise-shell bracelets; she was still prepared to be flirtatious. She died in Perth on 24 August 1968, refusing to be buried there; her ashes were scattered at sea. Self-portraits are in national, State and regional collections in Canberra, Adelaide, Kalgoorlie and Fremantle.
James Watson, 'O'Connor, Kathleen Laetitia (1876–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oconnor-kathleen-laetitia-7876/text13689, accessed 18 May 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988