Chronology of events
Jules François Archibald, then editor of the Bulletin, commissioned John Longstaff to paint a portrait of the poet Henry Lawson. Apparently Archibald was so pleased with the portrait that he decided to 'write his name across Sydney’ by bequeathing money to the arts. When he died in 1919, he left one tenth of his estate of £89,061 in trust for a non-acquisitive annual art prize to be awarded by the trustees of the (then) National Art Gallery of New South Wales (now Art Gallery of New South Wales).
The first Archibald Prize of £400 was awarded to WB McInnes for his portrait of Desbrowe Annear.
Gother Mann, director of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, in listing the conditions of the prize, stated that 'portraits should be as far as practicable painted from life and may be of any size. No direct copies from photographs will be considered eligible.’
WB McInnes’ winning Portrait of a lady was criticised as the sitter was not named and it was therefore impossible to determine if the condition of the prize – that the portrait be 'preferentially’ of a man or woman 'distinguished in the Arts, Letters, Science or Politics’ – was fulfilled.
Nora Heysen was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize with her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, the wife of the Consul General for the Netherlands. Max Meldrum made the much quoted statement, 'If I were a woman, I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art. Women are more closely attached to the physical things of life. They are not to blame. They cannot help it, and to expect them to do some things equally as well as men is sheer lunacy.’
William Dargie won the prize with his portrait of Corporal Jim Gordon, VC. The work was painted when Dargie was an official war artist in Syria. The ship carrying the portrait back to Sydney sank and the painting spent some time underwater.
William Dobell won the award for Joshua Smith. Raymond Lindsay, writing for the Daily Telegraph, noted, 'it is daring to the point of caricature, but its intense vitality lifts it from any such moribund definition. It has all the qualities of a good painting’. When the award was announced, two other entrants, Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolinski, took legal action against Dobell and the trustees on the ground that the painting was not a portrait as defined by the Archibald Bequest. The case was heard in the Supreme Court of NSW before Justice Roper, who dismissed the suit and ordered the claimant to pay costs for Dobell and the trustees. This was followed by an appeal and an unsuccessful demand to the Equity Court to restrain the trustees from handing over the money.
For the first time the trustees had to insist upon a pre-selection of works. More than half of the entries were eliminated.
William Dobell won both the Archibald and Wynne Prizes. His winning portrait of Margaret Olley was purchased by the Gallery.
William Dargie’s winning portrait, Mr Essington Lewis, CH, provoked an art students’ demonstration. Students, including John Olsen, marched around the Gallery, gave three cheers for Picasso and left. A woman in the demonstration tied a placard around the neck of her dachshund, which read 'Winner Archibald Prize – William Doggie’.
The first show of the Archibald ‘rejects’ took place from 20 to 27 February at the Educational Galleries, Bridge Street.
The trustees decided not to award the prize on the grounds that the entries were not of a sufficient standard.
John Bloomfield’s portrait of Tim Burstall, painted from a blown-up photograph, was disqualified on the grounds that the portrait had to be painted from life. The prize was rejudged and awarded to Kevin Connor.
Brett Whiteley’s Self portrait in the studio was a turning point as it challenged traditional tenets of likeness and realism and stretched the definition of portraiture.
Brett Whiteley won the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, becoming the first artist to win all three prizes in one year.
The trustees, for the second time, decided not to award the prize on the grounds that there was no entry worthy of the award.
John Bloomfield threatened to take legal action to prevent Eric Smith being awarded the prize for his painting of Rudy Komon, as he claimed Smith had not adhered to a condition of entry, that the portrait should be painted from life.
The Perpetual Trustee Company, which administered Archibald’s will, took the Australian Journalists Association Benevolent Fund to court. The AJA was named as first defendant in the case because it stood to inherit the money if the Archibald Prize failed to fulfil the criteria that the prize was still a ‘good charitable bequest’. Justice Powell found that the Archibald Prize did fulfil this and directed that the Perpetual Trustees Company should transfer administration of the Trust to the Art Gallery of NSW.
The People’s Choice Award was established.
The entry fee for artists was increased to $25, and there were 174 fewer entries than the previous year.
The Archibald Prize application form was amended to read: ‘For the purpose of this prize the trustees apply the definition of a portrait as determined in the judgment of 1983: “a picture of a person painted from life”.’ This refers to John Bloomfield’s unsuccessful attempt in 1983 to sue for the return of the 1975 Archibald Prize.
To coincide with the 75th anniversary of the prize, a mini-retrospective of selected past winners was mounted.
The eligibility of a painting of Bananas in pyjamas television characters B1 and B2 was questioned by the trustees, as it was not a portrait of a ‘man or woman’. Artist Evert Ploeg pointed out that his subjects were distinguished in the arts and that the portrait was painted from life, the only difference being that the subjects were in costume. The now-annual Salon des Refusés exhibition of works that were not hung in the Archibald Prize was organised at an external venue to protest against the predominance of established regulars in the Archibald exhibition.
Euan Macleod’s winning work, Self portrait/head like a hole, received widespread acclaim as a strong, imaginative painting. It was described by the Daily Telegraph (20 March 1999) as ‘arguably the most abstract painting ever to win the prize’. The trustees’ announcement was greeted with raucous whooping and cheering.
Rendered in Dulux house paints, because they were ‘rich, inexpensive and bright’, Adam Cullen’s winning work, Portrait of David Wenham, drew praise for the trustees from the Sydney Morning Herald (25 March 2000) for their imaginative choice, commenting that ‘the daggiest award in Australian art is beginning to look serious’.
A record increase in the number of entries may have been stimulated by awards to more adventurous works during the previous two years. Public attendance at the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman exhibitions reached its highest ever daily average, at 1725 visitors per day (compared with 1388 per day in 2000).
A size limitation was introduced. Entries could be no larger than 90,000 square centimetres (for example, 3 metres by 3 metres, or 4.5 metres by 2 metres). This was a decision made after the 2002 exhibition, with excessively large works creating handling, judging and storing difficulties, as well as restricting the number that could fit in the exhibition. Another restriction introduced for the 2003 Archibald Prize was the limit of one work per artist. The inaugural Citigroup Private Bank Australian Photographic Portraiture Prize was held in conjunction with the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, with the aim of promoting outstanding works of both professional and aspiring Australian photographers. This prize was discontinued in 2007.
Craig Ruddy’s portrait David Gulpilil – two worlds won the 2004 Archibald Prize and the People’s Choice Award. It was only the second time in 16 years the public agreed with the judges’ decision.
Sam Leach won both the Archibald and the Wynne Prizes. It was only the second time an artist had won both prizes: the first being William Dobell in 1948. Brett Whiteley won all three prizes – Archibald, Wynne and Sulman – in 1978.