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Winner: Archibald Prize 1943

William Dobell Mr Joshua Smith

oil on canvas

122 x 81 cm

Courtesy Sir William Dobell Art Foundation. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney

William Dobell has an almost legendary place in Archibald Prize history due to this controversial 1943 winning portrait of artist Joshua Smith.

That win was challenged by a group of artists, led by Mary Edwell-Burke (also known as Mary Edwards) and Joseph Wolinski, who took Dobell and the Gallery to court, claiming the work was a distorted caricature, not a portrait.

Art critics, gallery directors, artists, even medical experts were called on for their opinion, and Smith’s appearance was put under intense and humiliating scrutiny. Ultimately, many believed the actions of the artists who instigated the court case were impelled by their fear of the changes in art driven by modernism.

The experience was soul-destroying for both Dobell and Smith, despite the court ruling in Dobell’s favour, and irrevocably damaged their friendship.

The painting was all but destroyed in a fire in 1958, and subsequently restored.

Dobell used the title Portrait of the artist for his painting but it was listed in the catalogue of the 1943 Archibald Prize competition as Mr Joshua Smith.