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Story: O'Keeffe, Alfred Henry

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O'Keeffe, Alfred Henry


Publican, artist, art teacher

This biography, written by R. D. J. Collins, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Alfred Henry O'Keeffe was born at Long Gully, Victoria, Australia, on 21 July 1858, the son of Edmund O'Keeffe, a miner and amateur painter, and his wife, Eliza Ellen Vickers. The family came to New Zealand and settled in Dunedin by 1866; Edmund worked as a carter and a grocer before becoming a publican. Alfred trained as a cabinet-maker before joining his father at the Liverpool Arms Hotel in Filleul Street, which he himself operated from the early 1880s until about 1893. He married Jane Smith at First Church, Dunedin, on 21 July 1881.

He studied part time at the Otago School of Art between 1882 and 1887 and exhibited as an amateur painter. The excitement generated by a visit to art galleries in Sydney and Melbourne in the early 1890s encouraged him towards a professional career as a painter. From mid 1893 he tried to live by his brush, and, with the generous assistance of fellow-artists (including W. M. Hodgkins, Petrus van der Velden and Girolamo Nerli) and other sympathisers, went to study in Paris, leaving his family in Dunedin. On 29 June 1894 he enrolled at the Académie Julian, where C. F. Goldie was a fellow-student. He remained there until the following April, receiving tuition from Jean-Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant and apparently concentrating on the figure. O'Keeffe had some contact with contemporary French painting, and was familiar with the work of Vincent van Gogh. He may also have seen paintings by Paul Cézanne, but had left Paris before the opening of Cézanne's major 1895 exhibition.

Returning to New Zealand, O'Keeffe was unable to make a living as a painter and left Dunedin with his family in 1896 to manage a country hotel: painting became a marginal activity until his return to Dunedin about 1905. Thereafter he exhibited regularly throughout New Zealand, was frequently commissioned as a portrait painter, and taught at the Dunedin School of Art and Design and in his own studio (associated, for a time, with Mabel Hill). His high standards were admired and his generous encouragement of promise was remembered with gratitude. Throughout his life O'Keeffe actively supported the clubs and societies that gave the fine arts a professional structure.

After his return from Paris his style had changed. One critic soon noted that he was now working 'with freedom and boldness'. A free style and the broad application of paint became distinctive features of his work. His knowledge of the interaction between local and reflected colour may have arisen from a familiarity with impressionism. Despite his fondness for sombre settings and his reputation for skilfully using greys and silver, a subdued but almost incandescent glow is a recurrent feature of his paintings. He used a limited palette, basically cobalt blue, ochre and vermilion, and rose madder and lemon yellow when he could afford them.

Subjects 'descriptive of everyday life and ordinary incident' were prominent in O'Keeffe's early career, but subsequently disappeared from his repertoire. Landscapes are relatively numerous in his exhibition record, and of lifelong importance to him were still lifes (especially flower studies), the figure and portraits. Behind these thematic interests lies a preoccupation with mortality. Studies of old men and women emphasising age and the passage of time are recorded from 1886 into the 1930s. The still lifes are not only exercises in composition, colour, and light, but also allegories of impermanence and reminders of human frailty.

A sequence of self-portraits, from about 1920 until the 1940s, implies a careful self-scrutiny within the temporal flux of human life, although a more prosaic explanation suggests that 'the New Zealand Rembrandt' could not always afford to pay a model. O'Keeffe's most celebrated work, 'The defence minister's telegram' (1921), clearly draws on personal experience: both of his sons died in 1915 from wounds received at Gallipoli. 'Dignity of maidenhood' (1920), at £200 perhaps the most expensive painting O'Keeffe ever exhibited (almost twice the price of 'The defence minister's telegram'), may have been a memorial to his daughter Eileen, who had died in 1917.

O'Keeffe's recollections of art and artists in Dunedin were first published in the Otago Daily Times in 1935 and republished in 1940 in the periodical Art in New Zealand. They are an important and precious historical document of a milieu that produced a number of important New Zealand artists. Excitable, sometimes abrupt, and of penetrating eye, O'Keeffe was both generous and unconventional in his disregard for fashionable views in art. He remained devoted to his artistic ideals, and died in Dunedin on 27 July 1941, survived by his wife and two daughters.

How to cite this page:

R. D. J. Collins. 'O'Keeffe, Alfred Henry', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3o3/okeeffe-alfred-henry (accessed 22 February 2024)