Russell Drysdale

Russell Drysdale
Russell Drysdale

Russell Drysdale with some canvases, taken by Australian photographer Max Dupain
Birth name George Russell Drysdale
Nationality Australian
Field Painter

Sir George Russell Drysdale, AC (7 February 1912 – 29 June 1981) was an Australian artist. He won the prestigious Wynne Prize for Sofala in 1947,[1] and represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1954. He was influenced by abstract and surrealist art, and "created a new vision of the Australian scene as revolutionary and influential as that of Tom Roberts".[2]


Young life and career

George Russell Drysdale was born in Bognor Regis, Sussex, England, to an Anglo-Australian pastoralist family, which settled in Melbourne, Australia in 1923. Drysdale was educated at Geelong Grammar School. He had poor eyesight all his life, and was virtually blind in his left eye from age 17 due to a detached retina.

Drysdale worked on his uncle's estate in Queensland, and as a jackaroo in Victoria.[1]. A chance encounter in 1932 with artist and critic Daryl Lindsay awakened him to the possibility of a career as an artist. Supported by a fellow artist, Drysdale studied with the modernist artist and teacher George Bell in Melbourne from 1935 to 1938. He also made several trips to Europe; during 1938–39, he attended the Grosvenor School in London and the Grande Chaumière in Paris.[3] By the time of his return from the third of these trips in June 1939 Drysdale was recognised within Australia as an important emerging talent, but had yet to find a personal vision. His decision to leave Melbourne for Albury and then Sydney in 1940 was instrumental in his discovery of his life-long subject matter, the Australian outback and its inhabitants. Equally important was the influence of fellow artist Peter Purves Smith in guiding him towards his characteristic mature style with its use of desolate landscapes inhabited by sparse figures under ominous skies.[citation needed]


Drysdale's The Drover's Wife (1945) at National Gallery of Australia

Drysdale's 1942 solo exhibition in Sydney (his second in point of time; his first had been in Melbourne in 1938) was a critical success, and established him as one of the leading Sydney modernists of the time, together with William Dobell, Elaine Haxton, and Donald Friend. In 1944, The Sydney Morning Herald sent him into far western New South Wales "to illustrate the effects of the then-devastating drought".[4] With his series of paintings of drought-ravaged western New South Wales and, later, a series based on the derelict gold-mining town of Hill End, his reputation continued to grow during the 1940s. A painting of the nearby town of Sofala won the Wynne Prize for landscape in 1947. His 1948 work, The cricketers has been described by the National Gallery of Australia as "one of the most original and haunting images in all Australian art."[5]

London 1950

His 1950 exhibition at London's Leicester Galleries, at the invitation of Sir Kenneth Clark, was a significant milestone in the history of Australian art. Until this time, Australian art had been regarded as a provincial sub-species of British art; Drysdale's works convinced British critics that Australian artists had a distinctive vision of their own, exploring a physical and psychological landscape at once mysterious, poetic, and starkly beautiful. The exhibition initiated the international recognition of Australian art that quickly came to include Dobell, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Clifton Pugh, and others who came to national and international prominence in the 1950s.

Last years

Drysdale's reputation continued to grow throughout the 1950s and 1960s as he explored remote Australia and its inhabitants. In 1954, together with Nolan and Dobell, he was chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, and in 1960, at Bouddi near Gosford, New South Wales.

In 1969, Drysdale was knighted for his services to art, and in 1980, he was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia.[6] His later years saw a marked falling off in the quantity of his output, which had never been large.

Drysdale died in Sydney on 29 June 1981. At his request, Sir Russell's cremated remains were placed in the shade of a tree by the church in the burial ground beside historic St Paul's Anglican Church, Kincumber.

Personal life

He was married twice, and had a son, Tim, and a daughter, Lynne. Tim took his life in 1962, aged twenty one, and the following year his wife Bon also committed suicide. In 1964 Drysdale married Maisie Purves Smith, an old friend.[7]

Style and themes

Australian art scholar and gallery director Ron Radford argues that towards the end of World War II, Drysdale triggered "'a general reddening' of Australian landscape art".[4] Radford describes Drysdale's work as follows: "His dried up earth suggested that man had lost control of the land - nature had fought back and taken back".[4] Drysdale's Australia was "hot, red, isolated, desolate and subtly threatening".[4] His The Drover's Wife "cohabits in Australians' minds with Nolan's Carcass paintings" as conveying a sense of desolation.[4] Dysdale's red presents "a landscape deeply, intrinsically inhospitable" and conveys the "utter alienation" of the figures he paints in the landscape.[4]

Christine Wallace suggests that Drysdale "was the visual poet of that passive, all-encompassing despair that endless heat and drought induces", but that it was Sidney Nolan who, with a similar view, "most powerfully projected this take on Australia to the outside world".[4]

Lou Klepac, summing up in his 1983 work on Drysdale, says: "He found in the common elements of the landscape permanent and moving images which have become part of the visual lingua franca of modern Australia...Those who see in Drysdale's paintings a world remote from the comforts and pleasures they depend on, feel that he depicts loneliness and isolation. To him it was the opposite, a liberation from the anguish of the civilised world."

See also

  • Australian art


  1. ^ a b Short, John Rennie (2005). Imagined Country: Environment, Culture, and Society. Syracuse University Press. p. 211. ISBN 0815629540. 
  2. ^ Osborne, Harold, ed. (1970) Oxford Companion to Art, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  3. ^ "Drysdale, Russell (1912–1981)". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2007-08-10. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Wallace, Christine. "Clean, orderly and laminex coloured". Griffith Review 19 (Re-imagining Australia). 
  5. ^ "The cricketers". Federation: Australian art and society. National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 2009-08-31. 
  6. ^ "Sir Russell Drysdale (1912–1981)". Eva Breuer Art Dealer. Retrieved 2007-08-10. 
  7. ^ Russell Drysdale 1950–1981

Further reading

  • Klepac, Lou (1983). The Life and Work of Russell Drysdale. Bay Books. ISBN 0858356856. . Republished as Russell Drysdale in 1996 by Murdoch Books (ISBN 0864115237)
  • Smith, Geoffrey (1997). Russell Drysdale 1912–81. National Gallery of Victoria. ISBN 0724101977. 
  • Dutton, Geoffrey (1981). Russell Drysdale: A Biographical and Critical Study. Angus & Robertson. ISBN 0207144303. 
  • Dutton, Geoffrey (1989). Russell Drysdale 1912–1981: A Biographical Sketch. Mallard Press. ISBN 1863258019. 
  • Drysdale, Russell (1974). Russell Drysdale's Australia. Ure Smith. ISBN 0725402121. 
  • Drysdale, Russell (1981). Drysdale Drawings (1935–1980: 16–31 March 1981). Melbourne: Joseph Brown Gallery. ISBN 095950561X. 
  • Drysdale, Russell (1985). Russell Drysdale: Paintings, 1940–1972. New South Wales: S.H. Ervin Museum and Art Gallery, National Trust of Australia. ISBN 090972363X. 
  • Da Costa, Caroline (1989). Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend : works on paper and selected paintings by two highly acclaimed Australian artists, 23 November – 16 December 1989. Savill Galleries. ISBN 0958752419. OCLC 27615173. 

External links

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