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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Annette Kellerman, c. 1907 (printed 2003)

H. Walter Barnett

modern bromide print from an original negative (sheet: 30.3 cm x 40.5 cm, image: 27.3 cm x 39.3 cm)

Annette Kellerman (1886–1975), swimmer and entertainer, was among the early twentieth century’s most recognisable women. Born in Sydney, Kellerman suffered from rickets as a child and learnt to swim when the sport was recommended as a form of physical therapy. At fifteen she set a world record for the mile. In Melbourne from 1903, she did diving demonstrations and accomplished the first of her feats of endurance swimming. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities in Australia, she went to England in 1905, earning attention with a number of marathon swims, including three attempts at swimming the English Channel. A deft self-promoter, Kellerman styled herself as the ‘Australian Mermaid’ and the ‘Diving Venus’, devising a unique stage show that eventually combined music, singing, dancing and wire-walking with diving and underwater ballet. She left for the USA in 1907 and performed in amusement parks in Chicago and Boston before being signed by New York impresario, Benjamin Franklin Keith. By 1917, she was reputedly the highest paid woman in vaudeville and had starred in the first of several feature films, each a vehicle for her stunts and mermaid routines. These ventures powered Kellerman’s parallel profile as a fitness advocate and populariser of the women’s one-piece swimming costume. Declared ‘the Perfect Woman’ in 1908, Kellerman was a potent embodiment of modern femininity and her attitudes on exercise and swimwear issued a strident challenge to notions of ‘decency’. She promoted her beliefs in the pioneering books Physical Beauty: how to keep it and How to swim (both 1918). Kellerman spent World War II touring with her own theatre troupe, performing charity shows for soldiers in Australia and the Pacific. Staying true to her belief in the benefits of a daily swim until very late in her life, she died in 1975, aged eighty-nine.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of an anonymous donor 2004

Accession number: 2004.13

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

H. Walter Barnett (age 45 in 1907)

Annette Kellerman (age 20 in 1907)

Related information

The Companion

Permanent collection catalogue

Café and shop

On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

Annette Kellerman, c. 1916
Annette Kellerman, c. 1916
Annette Kellerman, c. 1916
Annette Kellerman, c. 1916

Naked ambition

Magazine article by Joanna Gilmour, 2009

Joanna Gilmour dives into the life of Australian swimming legend Annette Kellerman.

Dame Edna Everage, 1982 Lewis Morley
Dame Edna Everage, 1982 Lewis Morley
Dame Edna Everage, 1982 Lewis Morley
Dame Edna Everage, 1982 Lewis Morley

Bare

Degrees of undress

Previous exhibition, 2015

Bare: Degrees of undress celebrates the candid, contrived, natural, sexy, ironic, beautiful, and fascinating in Australian portraiture that shows a bit of skin. 

Annette Kellerman, c. 1907 (printed 2003) H. Walter Barnett
Annette Kellerman, c. 1907 (printed 2003) H. Walter Barnett
Annette Kellerman, c. 1907 (printed 2003) H. Walter Barnett
Annette Kellerman, c. 1907 (printed 2003) H. Walter Barnett

Indecent exposure

Annette Kellerman

Previous exhibition, 2011

'Diving Venus' and 'the perfect woman' are two of the numerous descriptions applied to Annette Kellerman, who achieved international fame during the early decades of the twentieth century.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.