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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.

The Gallery’s Acknowledgement of Country, and information on culturally sensitive and restricted content and the use of historic language in the collection can be found here.

Sir William Dobell

n.d.
Louis Kahan AO

fibre-tipped pen and pen and ink on paper (sheet: 55.9 cm x 38.0 cm)

Sir William Dobell (1899–1970), painter, studied art and was apprentice to an architect in Sydney before leaving Australia for Europe in 1929. On his return to Sydney after a decade he managed to impress conservative and modernist art factions alike. In the Second World War, Dobell served in a camouflage unit and the Civil Construction Corps of the Allied Works Council. Out of this experience, in 1943, came two portraits: one of Joe Westcott, a loudmouthed, indolent wharfie, titled The Billy Boy; and another of fellow artist and camoufleur, Joshua Smith. Both paintings were hung in the Archibald Prize exhibition that year, and the portrait of Smith was announced the winner. The decision was challenged, however, by a faction of conservative artists who claimed that Dobell's painting of his friend was a caricature, not a portrait, and who took the matter to court. Meanwhile, the National Art Gallery (as the AGNSW was then known) extended the exhibition dates and by March 1944 the painting had reportedly been viewed by over 140,000 people. The court eventually found in Dobell's favour – his lawyers having persuasively argued that likeness and photographic accuracy weren't necessarily one and the same thing. Dobell was affected physically and emotionally by the controversy and gave up painting for some time.

Slowly, the artist rebuilt his career; he won both the Wynne Prize for landscape and the Archibald Prize for the second time, with a portrait of Margaret Olley, in 1948. He won another Archibald in 1959, and Time magazine commissioned his portrait of Robert Menzies for its cover in 1960. These and other successes of Dobell's, including his knighthood, conferred in 1966, did much to increase the status of artists in Australia.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of Mrs Lily Kahan 2017
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
© Louis Kahan/Copyright Agency, 2022

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

Subject professions

Visual arts and crafts

Donated by

Lily Kahan (52 portraits)

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.

Self portrait
Self portrait
Self portrait
Self portrait

A guy from Paris

Magazine article by Dr Sarah Engledow, 2018

Sarah Engledow on a foundational gallery figure who was quick on the draw.

Dr Edward MacMahon, 1959 by William Dobell
Dr Edward MacMahon, 1959 by William Dobell
Dr Edward MacMahon, 1959 by William Dobell
Dr Edward MacMahon, 1959 by William Dobell

Bill and Ted's excellent portrait.

Magazine article by Dr Sarah Engledow, 2016

Sarah Engledow on Messrs Dobell and MacMahon and the art of friendship.

© National Portrait Gallery 2022
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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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency