The Archibald Prize is regarded as the most important portraiture prize in Australia. It was first awarded in 1921 after the receipt of a bequest from J. F. Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin who died in 1919. It is administered by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and awarded for "the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date fixed by the trustees for sending in the pictures." Guido Belgiorno-Nettis said that judging the annual competitions was “absolutely the most fun thing you can do as a trustee”. The Archibald Prize is awarded annually and as of July 2015, the prize is AU$100,000.
The prize has historically attracted a good deal of controversy and several court cases; the most famous was in 1943 when William Dobell's winning painting of Joshua Smith was challenged because of claims it was a caricature rather than a portrait.
The Archibald is one of the few art prizes in which the artist's signature is covered up so as not to be seen by the judges during initial selection for the final. Given the small size of Australia's art community, this is intended to discourage nepotism on the part of judges (several of whom are artists and several of whom have no arts qualifications at all) simply selecting their friends' works rather than making selections based on merit.
Max Meldrum criticised the Archibald Prize winner in 1938, saying that women could not be expected to paint as well as men. Nora Heysen was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, with a portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, the wife of the Consul General for the Netherlands.
In 1953 several art students including John Olsen protested William Dargie's winning portrait, the seventh time he had been awarded the prize. One protester tied a sign around her dog which said "Winner Archibald Prize – William Doggie". Dargie went on to win the prize again in 1956.
After Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed he refused to sit for the traditional portrait which is done of Australian Prime Ministers, and instructed that the 1972 Archibald Prize winning portrait by Clifton Pugh be used instead. This is now hanging at New Parliament House in Canberra.
In 1975, John Bloomfield's portrait of Tim Burstall was disqualified on the grounds that it had been painted from a blown up photograph, rather than from life. The prize was then awarded to Kevin Connor. Later, legal action was threatened by John Bloomfield in 1981, claiming that the winner that year, Eric Smith had not painted his subject from life. In 1983 John Bloomfield sued for the return of the 1975 prize which was unsuccessful. In 1995 the application form of the Archibald Prize was modified based on this to make clear that the subject must be painted from life.
In 1985, administration of the trust was transferred to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, after a court case where the Perpetual Trustee Company took the Australian Journalists Association Benevolent Fund to court.
In 1997 the painting of the Bananas in Pyjamas television characters by Evert Ploeg was deemed ineligible by the trustees because it was not a painting of a person. Although this was an incident which was seized upon by the media, hundreds of portraits each year are not accepted as finalists.
Another controversy involved the 2000 Archibald winner, when artist Adam Cullen lodged a complaint with the American Broadcasting Company who had used his painting, Portrait of David Wenham, in a television commercial.
In 2002, head packer Steve Peters singled out a painting of himself by Dave Machin as a possible winner for the Packing Room Prize. It did not win, but it was hung outside the Archibald exhibition. Following this, portraits of the head packer were no longer allowed.
In 2004 Craig Ruddy's image of David Gulpilil, which won both the main prize and the "People's Choice" award, was challenged on the basis that it was a charcoal sketch rather than a painting. The claim was dismissed in the Supreme Court in June 2006.
In 2008 Sam Leach's image of himself as Hitler made the front page of Melbourne's newspaper The Age and sparked a national debate about the appropriateness of his choice of subject matter. The prize money was also changed to $50,000.
Since 1935 there have been two extra categories added to the Archibald prize event. Both are more likely than the main prize to award the portrait of a celebrity. In 1991 the Packing Room Prize was established, in which the staff who receive the portraits and install them in the gallery vote for their choice of winner. Although the prize is said to be awarded by the staff, the gallery's head storeman – as of 2011, Steve Peters – holds 51% of the vote. The Packing Room Prize is awarded annually and as of June 2014, the prize is A$1,500.
The other category is the People's Choice Award in which votes from the viewing public are collected to find a winner. This award also comes with a monetary prize of $3,500.
To date, there has never been a matching Archibald Prize winner and a Packing Room Prize chosen in the same year, for which reason winning the Packing Room Prize is known as "the kiss of death award". However, there were two People's Choice Awards given to Archibald Prize winners in 1988 and 2004.
Twice there has been a matching Packing Prize winner and People's Choice Award (neither won the main prize), to Paul Newton's portrait of Roy Slaven and HG Nelson in 2001, and to Jan Williamson's portrait of singer/songwriter Jenny Morris the following year.
The Archibald is held at the same time as the Sir John Sulman Prize, the Wynne Prize, the Mortimore Prize for Realism, the recent Australian Photographic Portrait Prize and was held with the Dobell Prize before 2003. The Archibald prize is the next richest portrait prize in Australia, after the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. However, the Archibald is the only artist's prize that receives much attention in the general press. Part of the reason is probably that many of the paintings feature prominent Australians such as actors, sportspeople, and politicians, and thus making the art more accessible than other genres. It is also longer running with a richer tradition than the newer established portrait prizes.
In 1978 Brett Whiteley won the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes all in the same year, the only time this has happened. It was his second win for the Archibald and the other prizes as well.
Some works which do not make the Archibald Prize finalists are shown at the S. H. Ervin Gallery in the Salon des Refusés exhibition, which began in 1992.
The satirical Bald Archy Prize, supposedly judged by a cockatoo, was started in 1994 at the Coolac Festival of Fun as a parody of the Archibald Prize; it attracted so many visitors that it has moved to Sydney.