William DOBELL

Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia 1899 – Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia 1970

  • England, Europe 1929-38

The red lady 1938 Place made: London, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Dimensions: 77.0 h x 66.2 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1977
Accession No: NGA 77.518
Image rights: With permission of Sir William Dobell Art Foundation.
  • He sees the ordinary and paints it as though it was extraordinary; he sees the commonplace and paints it as though it was unique; he sees the ugly and paints it as though it was beautiful.1

    The red lady was painted during Dobell’s last year in London before he returned to Australia. Brian Adams records that Dobell and Donald Friend visited the Caledonian Market, where they bought art materials cheaply. There, they could also observe the cockney characters including an ‘enormously fat woman with a red face who sold carpets and brass jardinières and later inspired one of his archetypal pictures of cockneydom.’2

    Dobell arrived in England in 1929, having been awarded the New South Wales Society of Artists Scholarship, and spent the next nine years living there in poverty and pursuing his passion for painting. During this time, he explored the physicality of painting by observing the styles and techniques of artists like Daumier, El Greco, Goya, Hals, Rembrandt, Renoir and Tintoretto. He was a keen observer of humanity, storing up visual impressions which later appeared as types rather than individuals – and often portrayed with a satirical slant.

    The heavily swelling figure of The red lady is poured across the canvas in swathes of flesh and fabric, creating a monumental form. She sits complacently peering at the viewer through wrinkled eyes. She is disquieting, both voluptuous and repulsive. Dobell’s fluid handling of paint creates texture and pattern, whilst his colours owe much to Renoir of the later red period. The hair is festooned over the moon-like features and tawdry jewellery glistens on the fleshy arms and breasts. 

    At this time, Dobell was enjoying the financial benefits of having worked as one of a team of artists on decorations for the Wool Pavilion at the Glasgow Trade Fair. However, the grim years of the Depression were leading to war and, against this background, the devouring form of The red lady seems to exemplify greed and overindulgence.

    Lola Wilkins, 2002.

    1James Gleeson, William Dobell, London: Thames and Hudson, 196, p.20.

    2Brian Adams, Portrait of an Artist, Melbourne: Hutchison, 1983, p.78.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002