Growing up in the 1950s, Susan O’Brien McLean recalls early family connections to working artists—all of whom were male. In New Rochelle, New York, her family lived next door to John Sargent, an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. By way of her sister’s marriage to Oliver Purves, she was introduced to the working studio of Austin Purves, an accomplished artist and head of Cooper Union School of Art in New York City for a time. When the Purves family moved to Litchfield, Connecticut, McLean got her first introduction to a working art studio. The smell of oil paints and turpentine inspired her desire to paint.
After moving with her husband and children from South Africa to England in 1978, McLean studied painting and figure drawing, and fell in love with painting en plein air. “England is really a country of painters,” she says. The family bought a summer home in Osterville, which became their permanent abode in 1990.
Whether she’s working on landscapes, still lifes or portraits, the artist is outdoors—and in all sorts of weather. She especially loves painting landscapes in snow, and shares a story about this past winter. While walking her dogs along the beach one morning, a scene caught her eye. “I really wanted to paint that snow scene,” she recalls, “but it was 22 degrees outside!” She mounted a canvas onto foam core, packed up her oil paints and a tarp, and headed back to the beach in her car. With the engine providing intermittent heat to keep her paints from freezing, she pulled the tarp over her dashboard, propped up her canvas on the steering wheel, and set to work.
“Every day, I go out my door and find something to paint,” McLean says. “I don’t have to go beyond Osterville—the surroundings are rich with inspiration.” Hydrangeas, sailboats and children at play fill her canvases with timeless images.
The world has changed for women in art since McLean began her career. “The opportunities for my daughter and granddaughters are amazing,” she says. “It would be hard for them to relate to the limitations on women back in the 50s and 60s.” In keeping with that theme, McLean recently exhibited a series of portraits of women she’s painted over many years for a spring show at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod.
Susan O’Brien McLean is represented by Chapman Art Gallery, 5 Main Street, Cotuit; White Swan Gallery, 870 Main Street, Osterville; Copley Society of Art, Boston; and Marin-Price Galleries, Bethesda, Maryland. For more information, visit susanobrienmclean.com.