The street singer

William DOBELL: artist

Not On Display

About the work

A painter with a superb mastery of the technique of painting, William Dobell was born in Newcastle, New South Wales. He was twenty-six when he began to study at an art school, where Julian Ashton encouraged him to develop his talent for painting.

He had been apprenticed as an architect in 1916, then worked as a draughtsman and in an advertising office until 1929. In that year he won the Society of Artists' Travelling Scholarship, which enabled him to study in England and on the Continent.

At the Slade in London his tutors were Henry Tonks and Wilson Steer at a time when that school and the New English Art Club had a similar influence of insistence on draughtsmanship in good drawing and the tenets of impressionism. His year at the Slade, followed by close study of old masters in Holland, Belgium and especially Auguste Renoir in Paris, laid the foundation of a thorough knowledge of the tradition of technique.

Dobell remained in London for a further eight years and as those were the years of the Depression he suffered hardship.

Unknown as an artist, he returned to Australia in 1938 and in the following year became a teacher at East Sydney Technical College. He left this position early in 1941 to paint camouflage at aerodromes, but was later appointed as a war artist.

Dobell's aversion to violence led him to depict the human effort required by the ordinary work necessary in war and to paint some great portraits of outstanding characters.

The artistic climate in Australia when he returned was one of exhilaration and reassessment after the first major exhibition of modern masters. Not all artists understood these new directions and when Dobell was awarded the Archibald Prize in 1944 for his portrait of Joshua Smith bitter controversy was aroused. Two other entrants took legal action, alleging that his work was a caricature. The portrait is one of those that moved into expressionism, disclosing a heightened revelation of a man's character; an artist as related to his environment in the prevailing civilisation.

If there is an element of caricature in Dobell's work it is at the service of interpretation and of penetration to the inherent personality of the subject. The judge's ruling was that the painting was a portrait not a caricature but despite this favourable decision the experience had a shattering effect on Dobell, who suffered nervous disorders and withdrew to the small quiet town of Wangi.

In future years he was to win the Archibald Prize twice more and receive the Wynne Prize for Landscape.

Two visits to New Guinea provided him with fascinating material in sketches, watercolours and developed oil paintings, while continuing with his commissioned portraits. The portraits are searching studies of character expressed in a superb manipulation of paint with a texture peculiar to his own immense technical dexterity. Technique and sensibility come together in what seems an inevitable interpretative statement.

Ella Fry, Gallery Images, St George Books, Perth, 1984
The street singer
Artist/Maker and role
William DOBELL: artist
oil on plywood
36.3 x 29.5 cm (sight)
46.8 x 39.8 cm framed
Credit line
Gift of Miss Mitty Lee-Brown, 2002
The State Art Collection, The Art Gallery of Western Australia
Accession number

This is one of the paintings in our collection.


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