Sir William Dobell was born today, September 24, in 1899, in Cooks Hill, a working-class neighbourhood of Newcastle, New South Wales in Australia. He became regarded as one of the best portrait painters in the world.
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).
In 1929, Dobell was awarded the Society of Artists' Travelling Scholarship and travelled to England to the Slade School of Fine Art where he studied under Philip Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks. 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 outbreak 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 1943, Dobell's portrait of Joshua Smith, titled "Portrait of an artist", was awarded the Archibald Prize. This was contested in 1944 by two unsuccessful entrants, 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 and therefore not eligible for the prize. Public opinion was sharply divided, with most viewers puzzled by the unexpected portrait.
The claim was dismissed and 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.
In 1948, Dobell entered Margaret Olley in the Archibald and won; he also won the Wynne prize for Storm approaching Wangi. In 1959, he again won the Archibald for Dr. E. G. MacMahon.
He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1965 and was knighted in 1966.
Dobell was also gay and consequently never married. Several of his works carried strong homoerotic overtones.
He died in 1970 in Wangi Wangi.