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Sidney Nolan

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Sidney Nolan

Sidney Nolan, Dora Nolan

Mary Nolan (m. 1978–1992)


Known for


Sidney Nolan Scott Polar Research Institute Cambridge Sidney Nolan

Full Name
Sidney Robert Nolan

22 April 1917 (
Carlton, Victoria, Australia

November 28, 1992, London, United Kingdom

The Trial, Footballer, Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly

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Sidney nolan the artist

Sir Sidney Robert Nolan OM, AC (22 April 1917 – 28 November 1992) was one of Australia's leading artists of the 20th century. His oeuvre is among the most diverse and prolific in all of modern art. He is best known for his series of paintings on legends from Australian history, most famously Ned Kelly, the bushranger and outlaw. Nolan's stylised depiction of Kelly's armour has become an icon of Australian art.



Sidney nolan the ned kelly series

Early life

Sidney Nolan httpswwwartgallerynswgovaumediauploadsar

Sidney Nolan was born in Carlton, at that time an inner working-class suburb of Melbourne, on 22 April 1917. He was the eldest of four children. His parents, Sidney (a tram driver) and Dora, were both fifth generation Australians of Irish descent. Nolan later moved with his family to the bayside suburb of St Kilda. He attended the Brighton Road State School and then Brighton Technical School and left school aged 14. He enrolled at the Prahran Technical College (now part of Swinburne University), Department of Design and Crafts, in a course which he had already begun part-time by correspondence. From 1933, at the age of 16, he began almost six years of work for Fayrefield Hats, Abbotsford, producing advertising and display stands with spray paints and dyes. From 1934 he attended night classes sporadically at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.

Years at Heide (1941–1947)

Sidney Nolan Hare in trap 1946 by Sidney Nolan The Collection Art

Nolan was a close friend of the arts patrons John and Sunday Reed, and is regarded as one of the leading figures of the so-called "Heide Circle" that also included Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. Boyd and Perceval were members of the Boyd artistic family who were centered at "Open Country", Murrumbeena.

Sidney Nolan Pretty Polly Mine 1948 by Sidney Nolan The Collection Art

In 1938, he met and married his first wife Elizabeth, but his marriage soon broke up because of his increasing involvement with the Reeds. He joined the Angry Penguins in the 1940s, after deserting from the army during World War II; indeed he was an editor of the Angry Penguins magazine and painted the cover for the Ern Malley edition published in June 1944. The Ern Malley hoax poems were seen by Nolan and Sunday Reed as being uncannily prescient in touching on their own personal circumstances. The Malley poems remained a real presence to him throughout his life. He painted and drew literally hundreds of Malley-themed works and in 1975 said it inspired him to paint his first Ned Kelly series: "It made me take the risk of putting against the Australian bush an utterly strange object."

Sidney Nolan Sidney Nolan the Gallipoli series The Australian War Memorial

He lived for some time at the Reeds' home, "Heide" outside Melbourne (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art). Here he painted the first of his famous, iconic "Ned Kelly" series, reportedly with input from Sunday Reed. Nolan also conducted an open affair with Sunday Reed at this time although he married John Reed's sister, Cynthia in 1948, after Sunday refused to leave her husband. He had lived in a ménage à trois with the Reeds for several years and although he spoke to them, and visited Heide, but once again in their lifetimes, the years there together have been seen as a dominating factor in the subsequent lives of them all.

Sidney Nolan Sir Sidney Nolan Australian artist Britannicacom

In November 1976, Cynthia Nolan ended her life by taking an overdose of sleeping pills in a London hotel. In 1978, Nolan married Mary née Boyd (1926-2016), youngest daughter within the Boyd family and previously married to John Perceval.


Nolan painted a wide range of personal interpretations of historical and legendary figures, including explorers Burke and Wills, and Eliza Fraser. With time his paintings of Mrs Fraser came to be associated with his growing animus towards Sunday Reed. However, when first painted on Fraser Island in 1947 after he had left Heide, he remained on friendly terms with the Reeds and sent them photos of the works for their approval. Indeed, he gave one Fraser Island painting to Sunday Reed as a Christmas gift that year.

Probably his most famous work is a series of stylised descriptions of the bushranger Ned Kelly in the Australian Outback. Nolan left the famous 1946–47 series of 27 Ned Kellys at "Heide", when he left it in emotionally charged circumstances. He adopted the alias Robin Murray, a name suggested by Sunday Reed, whose affectionate nickname for him was "Robin Redbreast". Although he once wrote to Sunday Reed to tell her to take what she wanted, he subsequently demanded all his works back. Sunday Reed returned 284 other paintings and drawings to Nolan, but she refused to give up the 25 remaining Kellys, partly because she saw the works as fundamental to the proposed Heide Museum of Modern Art. Possibly also because she collaborated with Nolan on the paintings. Eventually, she gave them to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977 and this resolved the dispute. Nolan's Ned Kelly series follow the main sequence of the Kelly story. However Nolan did not intend the series to be an authentic depiction of these events. Rather, these episodes/series became the setting for the artist's meditations upon universal themes of injustice, love and betrayal. The Kelly saga was also a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape in new ways, with the story giving meaning to the place.

Although the Depression and World War II happened during this period, Nolan decided to concentrate on something other than people struggling in life. Nolan wanted to create and define episodes in Australian nationalism, to retell the story of a hero. A hero which now has become a metaphor for humankind—the fighter, the victim, and the hero—resisting tyranny with a passion for freedom. Nolan recognised that the conceptual image of the black square (Kelly's helmet and armour) had been part of modern art since World War I. Nolan just placed a pair of eyes into Kelly's helmet which animates its formal shape. As in most of the series, Kelly's steel head guard dominates the composition. Nolan also concentrates on the Australian outback and shows a different landscape in nearly every painting. Nolan's paintings give the audience an insight into the history of Australia but also show others from the world how beautiful Australia is. The intensity of the colours of the land and bush along with its overall smooth texture help create harmony between legend, symbol and visual impact. Kelly is in the centre of the painting but the colours around him help make him stand out. It's a very simplistic picture but highlights that Ned Kelly is an Australian icon.

Nolan never relied upon one style or technique, but rather experimented throughout his lifetime with many different methods of application, and also devised some of his own. Nolan was inspired by children's art and modernist painting of the early 20th century. During this time many younger artists were veering towards abstraction, Nolan remained committed to the figurative potential of painting. In terms of art history Nolan rediscovered the Australian landscape (Australia has not been an easy country to paint). His love of literature is seen as visually evident in his work. Other key influences were the modernist artists such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau. Locally, the arrival of the Russian artist Danila Vassilieff in Melbourne, with his simple and direct art, was significant for Nolan.

In his series, Kelly is a metaphor for Nolan himself. Nolan, like the bushranger, was a fugitive from the law. In July 1944, facing the possibility that he would be sent to Papua New Guinea on front-line duty, Nolan went absent without leave. He adopted the alias Robin Murray, a name suggested by Sunday Reed, whose affectionate nickname for him was "Robin Redbreast". So when he created this series he viewed himself as the misunderstood hero/artist like the protagonist, Kelly. "Nolan like this Kelly figure has also been a hero, a victim, a man who armoured himself against Australia and who faced it, conquered it, lost it…. ambiguity personified."

Nolan's Ned Kelly series is one of the greatest sequences of Australian paintings of the 20th century. His simplified depiction of Kelly in his armour has become an iconic Australian image. In 1949, when the series was exhibited at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris, the museum's director Jean Cassou called the works "a striking contribution to modern art" and that Nolan "creates in us a wonder of something new being born". Works from Nolan's second Kelly series (ca. mid-1950s) were acquired by major international galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. English critic Robert Melville wrote in 1963 that Nolan's Kelly belonged to "the company of twentieth-century personages which includes Picasso's minotaur, Chirico's mannequins, Ernst's birdmen, Bacon's popes and Giacometti's walking man".

Paintings of Dimboola landscapes by Sidney Nolan, who was stationed in the area while on army duty in World War II, can be found in the National Gallery of Victoria.

In 1951, Nolan moved to London, England. He travelled in Europe, spending a year in 1956 painting themes based on Greek Mythology while in Greece. In Paris, he studied engraving and lithography with S. W. Hayter at Studio 17t two years there. He became friends with the poet Robert Lowell and produced illustrations for some of his books. Nolan was a prolific book cover illustrator, his images enhancing the dust jackets of over 70 publications.

In 1965, Nolan completed a large mural (20 m by 3.6 m) depicting the 1854 Eureka Stockade, rendered in enamelled jewellery on 1.5 tonnes of heavy gauge copper. Nolan employed the "finger-and-thumb" drawing technique of Indigenous Australian sandpainters to create the panoramic scene. Commissioned by economist H. C. Coombs, the mural is located at the entrance to the Reserve Bank of Australia's Melbourne office on Collins Street.

During the period of 1968-1970, Nolan embarked on the creation of a monumental mural entitled Paradise Garden. This project consisted of 1,320 floral designs split into three subsections that were created using crayon and dyes. The intent of the subsections was to show the lifecycles of the plants, starting with the primeval plants emerging from the mud, transitioning to their full burst of colour in springtime, and the completion of the life cycle with the withering plants returning to the earth.

In England, Nolan attended the Aldeburgh Festival and become influenced by the organiser and composer Benjamin Britten, exhibiting paintings at the festivals. He continued to travel widely in Europe, Africa, China, Australia, and even Antarctica.


Nolan died in London on 28 November, 1992 at the age of 75, he was survived by his wife and two children. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London

Stage designs

Nolan's lifelong engagement with the theatre began in 1939 when he was commissioned to create décor for French ballet dancer Serge Lifar's revised version of Icare. Lifar, then on tour in Australia with the Original Ballet Russe, offered Nolan the job after a chance encounter with his abstract work. Icare premiered on 16 February 1940 at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.

In 1964, Robert Helpmann enlisted Nolan to design the set and costumes for his ballet The Display. Set at a bush picnic, the piece relates the mating rituals of the lyrebird to the masculine posturing of Australian males. Nolan created a series of green-blue gauze panels to evoke the filtered light of the forest. One contemporary critic remarked that Nolan's décor "not merely recreates the haunt of the lyrebird. It is the deep, rich mysterious gloom of a sunlight shafted Australian rainforest with the pillars of its ghostly white gums rising through its depths."

Honours and awards

In 1981, Nolan was appointed a Knight Bachelor for service to art, despite his war desertion. He received the Order of Merit (OM) in 1983. In 1983, Nolan settled in Herefordshire. The Sidney Nolan Trust, chaired by Lord Lipsey, was established in 1985 to support artists and musicians, and provide exhibition space for works by Nolan and others at The Rodd, north of Kington, Herefordshire.

He was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1988. He was also elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.


During the Tin Symphony segment of the 2000 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, a multitude of performers donned stylised costumes based on Nolan's distinctive Ned Kelly imagery, and a painting from Nolan's original 1946-47 Ned Kelly series was displayed on a giant screen in the stadium.

In 2010, First-Class Marksman (1946) became the most expensive Australian painting ever sold. Dubbed "the missing Nolan", the painting was the only one in Nolan's first series of 27 Ned Kelly paintings not in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. It was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for $5.4 million.

The cinematography for English film director Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Australian film Walkabout was heavily influenced by Nolan. The small boy's hallucination of camel riders in the desert was a direct reference to Nolan's Burke and Wills paintings.

Two of Nolan's paintings, The Abandoned Mine (1948) and Ned Kelly (1955) were included in Quintessence Editions Ltd.'s 2007 book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die.

Melbourne writer Steven Carroll's 2011 novel Spirit of Progress is inspired by Woman and Tent (1946) by Nolan, who based the painting on Carroll's eccentric great-aunt. The young artist in the novel, Sam, is based on Nolan. Nolan's relationship with Sunday Reed provided the framework for Alex Miller's 2011 novel Autumn Laing.

Nolan will be the subject of an upcoming film titled When We Were Modern, directed by Philippe Mora and starring Clayton Watson. This film had not been made as of July 2014. Mora’s film Absolutely Modern premiered in 2013. Based on 1940s Heide, it tells of Modernism, the female muse and the role of sexuality in Art.

David Rainey’s 2014 play "The Ménage at Soria Moria" is a fictitious performance piece exploring the relationship between Nolan and the Reeds – both the heady days at Heide during the 1940s, and the less well known degeneration over the next 35 years.

Several documentary films have been made about Nolan. This Dreaming, Spinning Thing was commissioned by ABCTV as a companion film to Nolan's 1967 retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was made with a script by Australian novelist George Johnston. Kelly Country (1972), directed by Stuart Cooper with commentary by Orson Welles, explores Australia's landscape and folklore through Nolan's imagery. Nolan's Paradise Garden poems and drawings are examined in British director Jonathan Gili's 1974 film of the same name. A 2009 documentary by filmmaker Catherine Hunter, Mask and Memory charts the course of Nolan's personal life, including his complex relationship with the Reeds at Heide. Narrated by Judy Davis, the film concludes that the three main women in Nolan’s life, Sunday Reed, Cynthia Nolan and Mary Nolan, played bigger roles in the development of his art than is often discussed.

Among Australian artists, Nolan's estate was identified as the third largest in Australia in 2013, following those of Brett Whiteley and Russell Drysdale.


Sidney Nolan Wikipedia

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