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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.

Portrait of Susan Wakil AO, 2019

Jiawei Shen

oil on canvas (frame: 216.5 cm x 125.0 cm, support: 198.5 cm x 107.0 cm)

Susan Wakil AO (1934-2018), philanthropist, came to Sydney as a seven year old from Bessarabia (Moldova/Romania). Her father had been interned in a Siberian gulag, and her mother had died. Living with her aunt, and later joined by her father, she proved a dedicated student, quickly learning English. In Sydney she met her future husband, Isaac, who had experienced the anti-Jewish Farhad in Iran. Together, they built up a clothing business. The couple appeared regularly in the social pages in the 1970s, Susan Wakil immaculately groomed and dressed in French couture labels. Over time, they purchased many unprepossessing properties across the Sydney CBD. These, they sold in 2014. Subsequently, they donated a record $35 million to the University of Sydney and a record $20 million toward the Sydney Modern wing of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They funded an initiative to help newcomers to opera to buy inexpensive tickets and vocational education for disadvantaged students at public schools. They are also major benefactors of the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Shen Jiawei was a member of the Shanghai Red Guard, made history paintings for the Chinese government and studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing before he was constrained to leave China because of a painting he made depicting heroes of the Chinese nationalist movement. He arrived in Australia in 1989, and spent three years drawing portraits at Darling Harbour. He has since become a regular Archibald finalist, and has painted commissions of Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Tom Hughes QC and L Gordon Darling AC CMG for the National Portrait Gallery. Shen is also the subject of two portraits in the collection. This portrait is unusual in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, in that it was not painted from life. It was commissioned by Isaac Wakil to commemorate his late wife, his partner for 62 years. Shen painted the late Mrs Wakil from a photograph, wearing an ensemble by her favoured designer Yves Saint Laurent.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of Isaac Wakil AO 2019

Accession number: 2019.35

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Jiawei Shen (age 71 in 2019)

Susan Wakil AO

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.

Portrait of Susan Wakil AO, 2019 Jiawei Shen
Portrait of Susan Wakil AO, 2019 Jiawei Shen
Portrait of Susan Wakil AO, 2019 Jiawei Shen
Portrait of Susan Wakil AO, 2019 Jiawei Shen

About grace

Magazine article by Penny Grist, 2020

Penelope Grist finds philanthropy and fashion underpin the story of Susan Wakil AO.

Gordon Darling interview video: 2 minutes
Gordon Darling interview video: 2 minutes
Gordon Darling interview video: 2 minutes
Gordon Darling interview video: 2 minutes

Gordon Darling

by Jiawei Shen

Portrait story

Gordon Darling talks about how Jiawei Shen came to paint his portrait.

Interview with Jiawei Shen video: 2 minutes
Interview with Jiawei Shen video: 2 minutes
Interview with Jiawei Shen video: 2 minutes
Interview with Jiawei Shen video: 2 minutes

Princess Mary

Portrait story

Artist Jiawei Shen describes the symbolism in his portrait of HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark.

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© National Portrait Gallery 2020
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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.