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 Sir William Dobell  (1899 - 1970)

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Lived/Active: Australia      Known for: modernist portrait, landscape, marine and genre painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Sir William Dobell, OBE (24 September 1899 – 13 May 1970) was an Australian artist. The electoral Division of Dobell in New South Wales is named after him.

William Dobell was born in Cooks Hill, a working class neighbourhood of Newcastle, New South Wales in Australia. His father was a builder and there were six children.

Dobell's artistic talents were evident early. In 1916, he was apprenticed to Newcastle architect, Wallace L. Porter and in 1924 he moved to Sydney as a draftsman. In 1925, he enrolled in evening art classes at the Sydney Art School (which later became the Julian Ashton School of Art), with Henry Gibbons as his teacher. He was influenced by George Lambert.

In 1929, Dobell was awarded the Society of Artists' Travelling Scholarship and travelled to England to the Slade School where he studied under Wilson Steer, Henry Tonks and William Orpen. In 1930, he won first prize for figure painting at Slade and also travelled to Poland. In 1931 he moved on to Belgium and Paris, and after 10 years in Europe returned to Australia – taking with him a new Expressionist style of painting as opposed to his earlier naturalistic approach.

In 1939, he began as a part-time teacher at East Sydney Technical College. After the break-out of war, he was drafted into the Civil Construction Corps of the Allied Works Council in 1941 as a camouflage painter; he later became an unofficial war artist. In 1944, he had his first solo exhibition including public collection loans at the inauguration of the David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney.

In 1949, he visited New Guinea as a guest of Sir Edward Hallstrom with writers Frank Clune and Colin Simpson. The trip inspired a new series of tiny, brilliantly coloured landscapes. In 1950, he revisited New Guinea and on his return to Wangi he continued to paint scenes of New Guinea, as well as portraits.

Between 1960 and 1963 TIME magazine commissioned Dobell to paint four portraits for covers, one per year, of: Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia; South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem; Frederick G. Donner, the Chairman of General Motors; and Tunku Abdul Rahman, Prime Minister of Malaysia.

In 1964, Dobell exhibited in a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the first monograph of his work was written by James Gleeson.

Dobell was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1965 and was knighted in 1966. He was gay and consequently never married, while several of his works carried strong homoerotic overtones. He died in 1970 in the New South Wales town of Wangi Wangi. The sole beneficiary of his estate was the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, which was founded on 19 January 1971.

A film of Dobell's life, titled Yours sincerely, Bill Dobell was made in 1981 by Brian Adams and Cathy Shirley for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the William Dobell Art Foundation. Brian Adams' book 'Portrait of an Artist - A biography of William Dobell' was first published in 1983 by Hutchinson Publishing Group and revised in paperback in 1992 for Random House Australia.

A book on the life and art of William Dobell, William Dobell: An Artist's Life by Elizabeth Donaldson, was compiled in 2010 with the support of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation and Dobell House, in Wangi Wangi. It is published by Exisle Publishing.

In 1943, Dobell's work of Joshua Smith Portrait of an artist was awarded the Archibald Prize. This was contested in 1944 by two unsuccessful artists who brought a lawsuit against Dobell and the Gallery's Board of Trustees in the Supreme Court of New South Wales on the grounds that the painting was a caricature. The award was upheld, but the ordeal left Dobell emotionally disturbed, and he retreated in 1945 to his sister's home at Wangi Wangi on Lake Macquarie, where he began to paint landscapes. Dobell did not like fame and it nearly destroyed him.

"William Dobell", Wikipedia, (Accessed 2/26/2013)

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