Carlton, Victoria, Australia 1917 – London, England 1992
Ned Kelly 1946 Materials & Technique: paintings, enamel paint and oil on paper adhered to card on board
Sidney Nolan was one of the most important Australian painters of the twentieth century. His iconic Ned Kelly series of 1946–47 (NGA) depicts key moments in the story of bushranger and folk-hero Ned Kelly (Edward Kelly 1855–1880) and is one of the most recognisable series of works in the history of Australian art.
Ned Kelly 1946 resembles a photograph of the bushranger at eighteen years of age, preserved on Kelly’s Beechworth gaol record (Public Record Office of Victoria, Melbourne). If this photograph were Nolan’s inspiration, he would have been just eleven years older than Kelly when it was taken, in 1873. Nolan became obsessed with Kelly and would continue to depict him in drawings and paintings until the year of his own death in 1992.
Unlike many of Nolan’s other paintings of Kelly, here he shows the young man unmasked, without his black-box armour. The facial features of Nolan’s subject are blurred and indistinct, like an endlessly repeated tale that loses its finer points. Nolan simplified Kelly’s face into a series of marks: horizontal slashes for eyes and strong eyebrows, a vertical stroke of a nose, and an impassive horizontal slit for a mouth. Kelly’s eyes fix on the viewer, like the eyes in a painted portrait from a haunted house.
Ned Kelly became an outlaw following an altercation at his mother’s home that led to a local constable claiming that he was shot in the wrist. From then on, Kelly and his gang took to the bush. While in hiding, they shot and killed three policemen who were in pursuit of them near Stringybark Creek. Dressed in crude suits of armour the Kelly gang staged their last stand in the town of Glenrowan. Police laid siege to the hotel where they were holed up, shooting several hostages, and eventually setting fire to the building. Ned was the only one of his gang of four to survive and was captured after being shot several times. He was convicted of murder and hanged at the Melbourne gaol on 11 November 1880.
 T G Rosenthal, ‘Ned Kelly 1948–1992: a magnificent obsession’, in Unmasked: Sidney Nolan & Ned Kelly 1950–1990, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2006, p 18.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010