Creating Characters: the Archibald Prize

JF Archibald (1856-1919) was a Victorian journalist and founder of the Bulletin magazine. He served as a trustee for the Art Gallery of NSW and during that time commissioned portrait artist John Longstaff to paint poet Henry Lawson. He was so enamoured with the work that he left money in his will for an annual portrait prize.

Painting, like writing has genres. Portrait painting became a thing in the thirteenth century and its roots are in memorialising the rich and powerful. The word means to show a likeness. A portrait is an intimate character sketch that seeks to capture the inner essence of its subject, in much the same way as a novel aims to express the inner world of its characters.

The history of the Archibald presents something of a cultural snapshot of Australian society – up until recent years all winners were caucasian males, usually from Victoria or NSW, who painted caucasian male subjects – a mirror of our societies discrimination in education, opportunities and social views of the times. The first woman to win the Archibald was Nora Heyson for her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman in 1938.

Today, both the subjects and artists are much more representative of Australia’s diversity. This years Archibald finalists include portraits of women of color, Aboriginal Australians, a subject with a disability, queer and elderly subjects. There was in fact a noticeable absence of old white suited men in armchairs and politicians. As I walked around the gallery, I couldn’t help wondering, what were the characters thinking in the moment captured, what is their life like, and what kind of relationship they have to the artist. Each tells a story.

Main image: Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker in Patrick Whites ‘A cheery soul’, Jude Rae

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