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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.

Professor Penny Sackett, astronomer and physicist, 2011

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
Purchased 2012
© Andrew Mezei

Accession number: 2012.110

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Andrew Mezei (age 48 in 2011)

Penny Sackett (age 55 in 2011)

Subject professions

Science and technology

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.

Interview with Penny Sackett video: 7 minutes
Interview with Penny Sackett video: 7 minutes
Interview with Penny Sackett video: 7 minutes
Interview with Penny Sackett video: 7 minutes

Penny Sackett

From Earth to Sky

Portrait story

Professor Penny Sackett, Australian National University and former Chief Scientist for Australia (2008-2011) talks about her life in science.

Interview with Penny Sackett & Andrew Mezei video: 5 minutes
Interview with Penny Sackett & Andrew Mezei video: 5 minutes
Interview with Penny Sackett & Andrew Mezei video: 5 minutes
Interview with Penny Sackett & Andrew Mezei video: 5 minutes

Penny Sackett and Andrew Mezei

From Earth to Sky

Portrait story

Professor Penny Sackett and artist Andrew Mezei describe the process behind making the portrait.

Interview with Andrew Mezei video: 4 minutes
Interview with Andrew Mezei video: 4 minutes
Interview with Andrew Mezei video: 4 minutes
Interview with Andrew Mezei video: 4 minutes

Andrew Mezei

'From Earth to Sky'

Portrait story

Artist Andrew Mezei talks about his art practice and the process behind his portrait of Professor Penny Sackett. 

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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.