Archibald Prize for Portraiture

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The Archibald Prize is regarded as the most important portraiture prize in Australia, and is certainly the most prominent. The prize (currently $50,000) is awarded annually and is administered by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. There are usually about 200 entries in the Archibald Prize, of which only about 100 or so are selected as finalists for hanging. Only one entry is allowed per person each year. Some of the winning artists have had to enter for many years before they were hung.

The Archibald Prize was first awarded in 1921 with a prize of £400 after a bequest from J F Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin who died in 1919.

Portrait of Albert Namatjira by William Dargie.

A notable winner is the 1956 portrait of Australia's celebrated Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira, by William Dargie.

Interestingly, in 1964 and 1980 the Trustees decided not to award the prize to anyone, deeming that no work was at the required standard!

Self portrait by Brett Whiteley.

In 1978 Brett Whiteley won the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes all in the same year, the first and only time this has happened. It was his second win for the Archibald and the other prizes as well.


The prize has historically attracted a good deal of controversy and several court cases; the most famous was in 1943 when William Dobell's winning painting of Joshua Smith was challenged because of claims it was a caricature rather than a portrait.

Painting or Caricature?
Portrait of Joshua Smith by William Dobell.

In response to critics Dobell said, "... trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject's character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive."

Drawing or painting?
 Portrait of David Gulpilil by Craig Ruddy.

In 2004 Craig Ruddy's image of David Gulpilil, which won both the main prize and the "People's Choice" award, was challenged on the basis that it was a charcoal sketch rather than a painting. The claim was dismissed in the Supreme Court in June 2006.

A Grand Ambition

As a portrait artist myself, I will be entering the Archibald when I feel I am ready. Even just to be chosen to be hung in such esteemed company would be a huge honour.

I hope you found this guide interesting. If you'd like to discuss any aspect of this guide, or portraiture in general, you are more than welcome to contact me.

Copyright (c) 2007 Lee Wilde
All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
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