This Max Meldrum self-portrait, painted when he was 75, attracted frenzied attention at the 1949 Archibald exhibition. It is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.
A controversial but highly influential figure in art circles, Meldrum arrived in Australia from Scotland with his family at 14 years. Following his studies at Melbourne’s National Gallery School, he was awarded the 1899 National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship and returned to Europe, spending almost 12 years in France. Absorbing works by the likes of Diego Velázquez and rejecting the post-impressionists and cubists, he cemented his dedication to realism, decrying modern art as a ‘pathological symptom of the diseased condition of modern civilisation’. Meldrum returned to Melbourne, established an art school, and wrote a ‘manifesto’ on his theories of tonalism, Max Meldrum: his art and views (1919).
When Nora Heysen – at just 28 – became the first woman to win the Archibald in 1938, Meldrum’s controversial public stance pillorying her success was unyielding. The 63-year-old declared, ‘If I were a woman, I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art’. He was contentiously appeased when the trustees awarded him both the 1939 and 1940 Archibald Prize.