William Dobell (1899-1970) Study for Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith), 1943

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Lot 215
William Dobell
Study for Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith), 1943

Sold for AU$ 915,000 (US$ 586,436) inc. premium
William Dobell (1899-1970)
Study for Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith), 1943
signed lower right: 'WDobell'
oil on composition board
36.0 x 25.5cm (14 3/16 x 10 1/16in).


    Collection of the late Sir Warwick and Lady Fairfax, Sydney

    National Gallery Society of N.S.W. First Loan Exhibition, National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 28 September - 19 October 1955, cat. 13 as 'lent by Mr and Mrs W.O. Fairfax'
    Contemporary Australian Painting, Pacific Loan Exhibition, on board Orient Line S.S. Orcades 1956, Sydney 2 October 1956; Auckland 8 October 1956; Honolulu 16 October 1956; Vancouver 22 October 1956; San Francisco 25 October 1956; National Art Gallery, Sydney, November 1956, cat. 16, as Sketch for Portrait of Joshua Smith, kindly lent by Mr and Mrs Warwick Fairfax
    William Dobell: Paintings from 1926 - 1964, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 July – 30 August 1964, cat. 96 (label attached verso)
    William Dobell: The painter's progress, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 14 February – 27 April 1997; Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle, 7 May – 6 July 1997; Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, 29 July – 21 September 1997; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 25 October – 7 December 1997; Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, 8 January – 1 March 1998

    James Gleeson, William Dobell, Thames and Hudson, London, 1964, pl. 44, p. 52, 145 (illus.), 193
    William Dobell, paintings from 1926 to 1964, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, souvenir catalogue, 1964, cat. 96 (unpaginated)
    James Gleeson, William Dobell, A Biographical and Critical Study, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1981, p. 127, pl. 77 (illus.)
    Barry Pearce and Hendrik Kolenberg, William Dobell: The Painter's Progress, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1997, fig. 28E, p. 87 (illus.)
    Christopher Allen, Art in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism, Thames and Hudson, London, 1997, fig. 110, p. 136 (illus.)
    Bernard Smith, Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote, Australian Painting, 1788 – 2000, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001, p. 257, pl. 149 (illus.)

    Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith), 1943, oil on canvas, 107.0 x 76.0cm, private collection
    Study of Joshua Smith, c.1943, pencil, pen and black ink on paper, 27.9 x 20.3cm, private collection
    Untitled [Two studies for portrait of Joshua Smith], 1943, pencil on paper, 32.8 x 24.8cm, collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
    (Studies of Joshua Smith), c.1943, pencil, pen and black ink on paper, 25.3 x 20.3cm, collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
    Joshua Smith, 1943, silverpoint on paper, 22.4 x 17.3cm, collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

    In 1943 the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (then known as the National Gallery of NSW) awarded the Archibald Prize to William Dobell for his portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith. The decision was challenged by a group of artists and critics who, by the time it reached court the following year, had been whittled away to just two - Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolinski – the Bequest stating that any challenger had to have exhibited in the competition.

    Their chief argument was that the painting was not sufficiently naturalistic, that is was a caricature rather than a portrait, and thus did not meet the terms of the Bequest. Dobell and his team of lawyers advocated that a portrait need not be photographically exact in order to be considered a good likeness of the sitter. Dobell defended his motivations and methods, saying that he always attempted to catch the 'essence' of a subject, rather than simply a mere likeness, and that he felt he was painting in the tradition of the great artists, just 'like Rembrandt'.

    Dobell and Smith had met some years earlier when they shared a tent while performing war work and, while Dobell described Smith as 'far from good-looking', he thought him 'a nice, likeable person with great dignity'. Once he had finished the painting, he was nervous of Smith's opinion, and had to be encouraged by friends such as artist Dorothy Thornhill to stand by the work. At first Smith was pleased with the portrait and thought Dobell had done a fine job but almost immediately a certain public hectoring and disparagement (largely from the Truth newspaper) began which had a negative effect on Smith and his parents.

    For the two years before the controversy, in 1941 and 1942, the Archibald had been given to the academic painter William Dargie (he was to win seven times between 1941 and 1952 and an eighth in 1956), something that had drawn the ire of the Herald art critic Paul Haefliger who had criticised Dargie's style as mediocre. Haefliger called for a vigorous change to the competition and even suggested the appointment of a foreign judge such as Sir Kenneth Clark. He had championed Dobell's superiority in the previous two exhibitions, and now in 1943 declared the portrait 'masterly'. 'An air of grotesque contemplation, a certain depth and wistfulness permeate the work,' Haefliger wrote, which revealed itself in Smith's long clasped hands and angular body.

    He was strongly supported by Charles Lloyd Jones who, though hardly a progressive, was better educated than most and tremendously influential. A former student at the Slade School in London Lloyd Jones had a finger in every pie of the art world as a collector, patron, trustee and gallery owner. A close friend of Dobell's, he had established the eponymous Art Gallery in David Jones's Market Street store in 1928 where it operated for many years as a sort of de facto state gallery, hosting many exhibitions of contemporary art, including the explosive Herald exhibition of 1939. This exhibition of French and British art containing works by Picasso, Cezanne, Gaugin, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Soutine, Utrillo and other supposedly 'avant-garde' artists, had divided the art world into two camps, and they stayed roughly the same in the 'for' and 'against' sides of the Dobell controversy.

    Conservative opposition to Dobell included the critic Howard Ashton and J.S. MacDonald, the latter even appearing as a witness in the court proceedings the next year. They were, however, from the beginning, a diminishing force, with many of their numbers disagreeing with the bitter factionalism and destructiveness that the court case brought forth. One such example was John Young, the founder of the Macquarie Galleries and a friend to many of the opposing artists, who soon came to regret his involvement.

    A cause célèbre...and then some. The Art Gallery extended the exhibition and by March 1944 some 154,000 people had viewed the work. There were visitations to the Director from concerned citizens in Melbourne, letters to the editor of all the daily papers, satirical cartoons, abusive phone calls and letters to Dobell. People stared at him and pointed. 'The mad artist', he thought they were thinking.

    One morning Joshua and his father visited Dobell in his flat and pleaded with him to destroy the painting, to sell it to them, to never show it again. After agreeing – as long as Smith remained silent – Dobell felt betrayed when Smith gave an interview about the affair to the papers. He refused to sell the painting but the friendship was over.

    The controversy however did not die down and soon all the participants would be swept away with its force. Edwards and Wolinski called it a 'grotesquerie' (adopting Paul Haefliger's unhappy choice of words), stating almost hysterically that it was a 'Pearl Harbour' attack on art. They announced their court case and for the next year no one could talk about anything except the Dobell case. The ensuing drama was indeed nasty and had devastating consequences for all concerned: Dobell had a nervous breakdown and stopped painting for years; Smith, in spite of being awarded the Archibald Prize the following year (which some thought of as a consolation prize), was forever tormented by the affair; Edwards, after submitting her portrait of Smith in 1944, thereafter sought refuge in Fiji; and Wolinski died.

    This painting is the best example that we have of the portrait Dobell intended, the finished canvas itself being all but destroyed in a fire in 1958 after Dobell finally decided to sell it. It is almost impossible to look at the figure of Smith, whose physical peculiarities were paraded and examined in the cruellest way before and after the court case, without feeling for the consequent suffering of both the artist and subject. Dobell had a way of seeing in which he exaggerated certain essential features of a subject and he has done this with Smith: the long arms and fingers, the small head and pixie-like ears. Whatever process he went through as an artist, the finished canvas was far more extreme than the study which is arguably more sensitively executed and, seen in terms of the ensuing controversy, perhaps the better work. There is a pleasing geometry to the composition that seems off-kilter in the finished work, a balance in all the features, and a spontaneity which is lacking in the final version (as far as one can tell from reproductions). One is drawn to Smith's hands more than to any other feature; perhaps they were the essence of the subject as artist that Dobell tried hardest to portray? There is less artifice, which perhaps leads one to ask, did Dobell, after all, go too far with the final canvas?

    Dr Candice Bruce

Saleroom notices

  • Please note this work is oil on card on board.
William Dobell (1899-1970) Study for Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith), 1943
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