Bognor Regis, England 1912 – Westmead, New South Wales, Australia 1981
1948 Title Notes: 'Portrait of Margaret Olley' adjusted 22/12/2009 as requested by Anna Gray
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Russell Drysdale’s portrait of Margaret Olley captures her as a confident and impish young woman. Drysdale, with an already distinctive approach, renders Olley in layered earthy tones. The portrait has a rustic quality seen in Drysdale’s outback figures in the landscape from the late 1940s to early 1950s. Yet, unlike the anonymous subjects of these works, Olley’s big dark eyes, petite rounded face and loosely, but stylishly pulled-back hair are instantly recognisable.
In the year this portrait was painted, Drysdale also opened Margaret Olley’s first, very successful solo exhibition. In 1948, she also sat for William Dobell, whose portrait of her went on to win the 1949 Archibald Prize. Unlike Dobell’s portrait, Drysdale’s Margaret Olley received little coverage in the press and escaped the controversy of the day surrounding the question of likeness.
Margaret Olley is well known in Australian art. Born in Lismore in 1923, she trained as a painter in Brisbane and Sydney and later studied in Paris. Here she encountered the influential work of artists such as Matisse and Bonnard. She developed an approach to colour and composition, and a passion for still life that continued throughout her career. In 1995 she said: ‘[I]t’s not fashionable these days to celebrate life. But I suppose that’s what I do. There’s no terrible message in it! I have an absolute obsession to paint. I go to bed and can’t wait to wake up and be painting again.’
Painter, philanthropist and subject of a number of portraits, Olley’s generosity, warm personality and colourful approach to life have endeared her to the Australian public and colleagues alike. In 1990, she established the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust, which has funded many important acquisitions by public arts institutions in Australia. For her services to the arts, Olley was honoured with the Office of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1991 and the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2006.
Russell Drysdale created an original and sophisticated visual language with strong, melancholic and rich red images of inland New South Wales and Queensland. Drysdale’s vision was of a countryside drought-stricken and eroded, with abandoned towns and eerie derelict buildings. These images influenced the development of postwar art in Australia, and the impression of Australia and its art internationally.
 Margaret Olley quoted in J Hawley, ‘Queen of subjects’, Good weekend magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March 1995, p 36.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010