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Sir William Dobell

(1899—1970)


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(b Newcastle, NSW, 24 Sept. 1899; d Wangi Wangi, NSW, 13 May 1970).

Australian painter. In 1929 he won a travelling scholarship that enabled him to study at the Slade School, London (he also had private tuition from Orpen), and he did not return to Australia until 1938. By this time his style had changed from the carefully studied, solidly constructed naturalism of his early works to a much looser and more Expressionist manner, sometimes with a satirical air. The rich colours and textures were influenced by art he saw on his travels in Europe, particularly the paintings of Soutine. He immediately acquired a circle of admiring patrons in Sydney, and in 1944 he became a household name in Australia when he was involved in a cause célèbre for modernism. In January of that year he was awarded the 1943 Archibald Prize for portraiture, given annually by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. His winning picture was Portrait of an Artist (damaged beyond repair by fire in 1958), representing his fellow painter Joshua Smith (1905–95). Two of the unsuccessful competitors contested the award in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, on the grounds that the winning work was not a portrait but a caricature—a ‘pictorial defamation of character’. Their suit was dismissed and the case was regarded as a significant victory for the cause of modern art in Australia. Some critics think that this marks the peak of Dobell's career and that much of his later work shows a decline in confidence. However, he continued to be much in demand as a portraitist and also painted landscapes, some of them inspired by visits to the highlands of New Guinea in 1949 and 1950.

Subjects: Art.


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