Brett Whiteley (1939–1992) was one of the greatest Australian artists of the 20th century, an intense and prolific practitioner who worked across an impressive spectrum of media. He was a draughtsman, printmaker, sculptor and writer, but ultimately flourished best at that which ‘...in his deepest conscience [he] most cared about: being a painter’.(1)
Whiteley absorbed styles, techniques and influences with an intense urgency, thirst and passion. The artists that he admired shifted and changed with his years. Through these artists he developed his own distinctive style and discovered that painting was an adventure, a risk, an opportunity to explore his inner world as he saw and felt it.
His early inspiration came from a mixture of art and life experiences. There were the books (such as the anthology Art since 1945 by Herbert Read) and reproductions in publications of international painters such as Ben Shahn, William Scott, Nicholas de Stael, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Amedeo Modigliani, Philip Guston, Giorgio Morandi, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso that Whiteley discovered in Carl Plate’s Notanda Gallery bookshop.
Whiteley also looked at the original Australian paintings of Russell Drysdale, William Dobell, Sali Herman and especially Lloyd Rees, whose sensitivity of landscape forms and painting technique influenced him profoundly, notably The road to Berry 1947 and The Harbour from McMahon’s Point 1950.
Whiteley was primarily self taught and at the age of 17 he was working for Lintas advertising agency, which encouraged his drawing and painting. He attended evening drawing clubs at Julian Ashtons Art School, National Art School life-drawing classes and the Northwood sketch group.
In 1959 Whiteley entered four paintings to be considered for the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship for 1960. These works were Dixon Street 1959, Sofala 1958, July painting c1959 and Around Bathurst c1959, which won him the scholarship. The exhibition of finalists was held at the Art Gallery of NSW and judged by Russell Drysdale.
(1) Barry Pearce Brett Whiteley: art and life, Thames & Hudson in association with the Art Gallery of NSW, London 2005, p40