Wednesday, July 21, 2021



The Archibald Prize is an Australian portraiture art prize, generally seen as the most prestigious portrait prize in Australia. It was first awarded in 1921 after the receipt of a bequest from J. F. Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin who died in 1919. It is awarded for "the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date fixed by the trustees for sending in the pictures." Since July 2015 the prize has been $100,000.


The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize is an annual Australian portrait prize founded by Doug Moran in 1988, the year of Australia's Bicentenary. It is the richest portrait prize in the world with $150,000 awarded to the winner.


In case you missed it, as I did, the winner of the 2021 Archibald art prize was announced at the beginning of June.

The winner is Peter Wegner for his “Portrait of Guy Warren at 100”:

The Packing Room prize went to Kathrin Longhurst for her portrait “Kate”:

See the finalists at:

My reason for the Archibald coming to mind is that when posting the celebrity caricatures a couple of days ago, I was reminded of an issue that resulted in a court case about the Archibald winner: When is a portrait a caricature?

I had posted an item about that in 2010 which I repost below. 

The link to the original item, which has details of other court challenges concerning the Archibald, is:

From that post, and amplified:

The issue of realistic depiction v character revelation, and the use of courts and judges to determine artistic merit, reached a high point in respect of the 1943 winning portrait "Portrait of an Artist" by Sir William Dobell (1899-1970) of his friend Joshua Smith.

Smith, also an artist, had worked with Dobell in the Civil Construction Corps in the early years of the war, painting camouflage on aircraft hangers and storage sheds. 

The Archibald award to Dobell was the first break with convention in the history of the prize. 

William Dobell in his studio with his portrait of Joshua Smith in 1943

The morning after the award was announced, Smith’s parents pleaded that he not exhibit the work and Smith refused to speak to him, such was their hostility towards the depiction of the subject. 

With public hostility mounting and newspaper cartoonists having a field day, two Royal Art Society members, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, took legal action against Dobell and the Trustees. The basis of their challenge was that the portrait of Joshua Smith was 'a distorted and caricatured form' and therefore not a portrait.

Dobell sought to explain his intention, motivation and technique:
“... trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject's character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.”
The case was widely reported and everyone had an opinion. The issue became one of the merits of Modernism.

The rift in the friendship between Dobell and Smith was made worse by the nature of Dobell’s defence. He maintained that the exaggeration of Smith’s facial features was not large and that in real life Smith was gangly, awkward and had long arms.

Joshua Smith

Dobell later described Portrait of an Artist as "a faithful portrayal of a person who was far from good-looking but regarded by some as ugly".

"He was conscious of his looks," Dobell recalled of Smith, "and I tried to portray the man as I knew him, because he was a nice, likeable person with great dignity."

Smith himself claimed that before Dobell began the portrait, he reminded his subject of his style. Dobell told him, "I use an element of distortion in order to make the portrait more like the subject than he is himself", and added, "You may not the like the finished job." The subject replied, "It's your job, Bill."

"Joshua saw the progress of the portrait all the time I was painting it," Dobell was quoted as saying in the Sydney Sun. "He gave me every facility and was in no way critical when he saw the finished work ... he congratulated me on the portrait."

The court found in favour of Dobell but both he and Smith sustained serious impacts upon their health as a result of the case. The adverse publicity and numerous abusive letters from strangers caused Dobell to develop severe dermatitis and to have a nervous breakdown. He retreated to Wangi Wangi and did not paint for a period.. He gradually returned to painting and eventually won two more Archibalds. His portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore (not an Archibald winner) is featured in the background on the $10 note.

Joshua Smith (1905-1995) in 1990 said of the portrait that it was a "curse, a phantom that haunts me. It has torn at me every day of my life. I've tried to bury it inside me in the hope it would die, but it never does.” He was especially bitter that the portrait had focused attention away from his own works.

And what of the portrait? Smith’s parents sought to buy it from Dobell but he declined to sell it to them, fearing they might destroy it. Instead he sold it to Sir Edward Hayward. In 1958 a fire in Sir Edward’s house in Adelaide almost destroyed the painting. In 1969 it was restored but reports are that the vibrancy and atmospheric quality have been lost, so much so that it is no longer considered an original work.

“I never intended to be a portrait painter. It was after the Joshua Smith painting that people began asking me to do portraits but I never wanted to be commissioned to paint portraits. I like to choose my own subject and make a character study from it.”

- William Dobell


By the way:

This is also from that 2010 post . . .

As a digression, an artist, Roger Akinin, once saw a photo of me asleep on a couch with cats perched on me. Although I didn't know him, he asked to paint that image and for me to sit for him. I agreed and, whilst the portrait was submitted but not accepted as a finalist for the Archibald, it did make the final 5 for the 2000 Moran National Portrait Prize.

As an addendum to the above, after the painting came third in the Moran, the Law Society Journal called me and asked whether they could do a story on it called "Lawyer with cats and tatts".  I politely declined.


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