Sunday, 30 August 2015


“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.” - John Singer Sargent

The Australian artist Sir William Dobell (1899-1970) was one of the world’s leading modern portraitists. His best portraits revealed an intimate perception of the sitter and an extraordinary psychological insight.

William Dobell was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, on Sept. 24, 1899. He moved to Sydney in 1925 to study at the Julian Ashton Art School. In 1929 he went to London on a travelling scholarship to study at the Slade School, where he won prizes for draughtsmanship and painting. Later he exhibited at the Royal Academy and before the New English Group.

Dobell returned to Sydney in 1939. He maintained a subjective approach to painting, and his work was very different from that of the then current Australian styles. In 1943 he won the Archibald Prize, Australia's principal award for portraiture, for a painting of fellow-artist Joshua Smith. The award was immediately challenged on the grounds that Dobell’s entry showed a degree of distortion which made it a “caricature” rather than a “true portrait”, but the court upheld the judging panel’s decision. Resultant newspaper publicity greatly expanded interest in Dobell’s work, but as a result of the controversy Dobell withdrew to Wangi, a small coastal town north of Sydney, and became a shy and enigmatic figure.

Gentle by nature, Dobell was also shrewd, warm, and strong in feeling, and these characteristics shone through his work. He was intensely interested in his fellow man. He achieved some of his effects by deft underscoring of aspects that typified the subject’s character, and others by sharp delineation of exciting and unusual features of the subject. 

Dobell was also a notable landscapist. He painted local scenes, views of Southeast Asia, and a series of cameos capturing the strangeness of New Guinea. He belonged to no school but acknowledged inspiration from Rembrandt, William Hogarth, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Chaim Soutine. Dobell gained numerous significant awards and received many commissions, among them four for portraits for use as Time magazine cover subjects, including one of Australian prime minister Robert Menzies in 1960. Exhibitions of his work attracted exceptionally widespread attendance; and a sale in Sydney in 1962 realised record prices for an Australian artist. He was knighted in 1966 and died in Wangi on May 14, 1970.

One of his most famous portraits is that of Helena Rubinstein. Rubinstein was a Polish/Jewish-born cosmetics entrepreneur, who had a good eye for niche marketing as much as for men who were able to support financially her growing enterprise and social ambitions (one of her husbands was a prince). She was also a well-known philanthropist, who established a travelling fellowship at the Art Gallery of New South Wales enabling a number of young aspiring Australian artists to travel and study overseas.

Dobell’s portrait is grand and bold, much like the woman herself. The almost garish colour, the extravagant jewellery and patterned dress, the haughty look remind one of old master portraits of queens or noblewomen. The artist strove to combine the individuality of the sitter with the creation of a character stereotype (that some would call a “caricature”). He painted Rubinstein at least eight times, and in a later portrait of Helena seated in a green interior Dobell captured her as the personification a genteel grand dame she purported to be, rather than a vision of a formidable personality, over-emphasised vanity, and exaggerated femininity that comes forth from this striking and highly individualised portrait.

No comments:

Post a comment