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Professor Penny Sackett, astronomer and physicist
, 2011

by Andrew Mezei

oil on linen (frame: 114.4 cm x 84.4 cm, support: 106.7 cm x 76.0 cm)

Penny Sackett (b. 1956), former Chief Scientist for Australia, gained her undergraduate degree in her home state of Nebraska, USA, before earning a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Pittsburgh in 1984. While working for the US National Science Foundation, the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in the Netherlands, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, she developed a specialisation in gravitational microlensing to search for extrasolar planets, as well as interests in dark matter and galactic structure. In 2002 she was appointed director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University. In 2006 she was one of an international team of 73 astronomers who discovered the first known earth-sized planet orbiting a normal star other than the Sun in the inner Milky Way. Sackett was appointed the Chief Scientist for Australia in late 2008, but remained an adjunct professor at ANU and continued to supervise research students. She resigned as Chief Scientist in 2011, announcing that she intended to contribute to science in other ways (she describes herself as physicist by training, an astronomer by profession and an educator by inclination.) A dual citizen, Sackett is an Elected International Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Andrew Mezei was born to Hungarian refugee parents in Melbourne and grew up in their leather-goods workshop, observing their adherence to a tradition of fine European craftsmanship. He obtained a bachelor of fine art from RMIT in 1983, and later studied old master techniques under Richard Clements. His painting is informed by science and emotionally charged by a view of the world as teetering on the edge of ecological destruction, while human knowledge increases exponentially. Following Dutch Masters’ techniques from the baroque period, he incorporates fine and rare pigments, resins and oils into his painting, and grinds most of his own colours. Entering this portrait in the Archibald Prize for 2011, Mezei stated that he aspired to paint Sackett after hearing her speak on the radio. He wrote ‘She responded to scepticism about climate change with eloquent reasoning in spite of the historical depiction of women as emotional beings, and reason as being a purely male domain . . . Her warm humanist approach inspired me to portray her as an allegory of reason . . . I wanted to show her femininity as perfectly compatible with her impeccable focus on facts. That warmth is portrayed through the red drapery on her lap: the more intense I could make it, the better.’ The setting is imagined, though informed by various images of Mount Stromlo Observatory. The artist writes ‘I wanted to construct an interior that would reflect her psychological space . . . I also wanted to portray professor Sackett’s calm and steady personality. I placed three circles in the composition; the globe, the mirror, and the small bolt above her head. I set them in orbit, rotating around the focal point of the subject. This also reflects the broader human condition, as we are all contained within a bubble in space, as suggested by my self-portrait in the convex mirror.’

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2012
Accession number: 2012.110