We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of NSW stands.


Portrait of Wally Smith



Justin O'Brien

Australia, Italy

02 Aug 1917 – 17 Jan 1996

  • Details

    Other Titles
    Head of a fellow Prisoner of War, Crete, WWII
    Man with the beard
    Place where the work was made
    Toruń Poland
    Media category
    Materials used
    oil on cardboard (Red Cross packing case)
    41.6 x 29.4 cm board; 52.6 x 40.5 cm frame
    Signature & date

    Signed and dated u.l. corner, black oil "JuSTIN O'BriEN/ 1943".

    Gift of the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust 2012
    Not on display
    Accession number
    © Estate of Justin O'Brien

    Reproduction requests

    Artist information
    Justin O'Brien

    Works in the collection


  • About

    Justin O'Brien enlisted in the army in May 1940 – joining the 2/5 Australian General Hospital (AGH) as a medical orderly – and departed Sydney that October bound for the Middle East. In April 1941, following the German invasion, the 2/5 AGH was deployed to Greece. After the fall of Crete, the division was captured and taken to Kokkinia, above Athens, where O'Brien witnessed the appalling brutality of war.

    In December 1941 he was transported by cattle train across Europe to Stalag XXA at Toruń (Thorn) in Poland. At the camp O'Brien joined the theatre troupe and set up an art class, where his students drew and painted one another. Fellow POWs included the painters Jesse Martin and Austen Deans, with whom he studied work by Post-Impressionist masters through books available in the camp's library. Deans diary entry for 31 January 1943 states:

    'Very good day today. Justin painted a glorious, exquisite head, in pearly flesh(?) red hat, green scarf, ochre ground. ... Justin's head was of Wally Smith.'

    This portrait displays the lessons of Cezanne and Van Gogh firmly established, through O'Brien's use of broken colour and impasto brushwork.

  • Exhibition history

    Shown in 5 exhibitions

  • Bibliography

    Referenced in 2 publications

Other works by Justin O'Brien

See all 21 works