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The Mystery behind Dobell's 'The Cypriot' (1940)


William Dobell, 'The Cypriot', 1940

William Dobell
Australia 1899-1970
The Cypriot 1940
Oil on canvas
123.3 x 123.3cm
Gift of the Godfrey Rivers Trust through Miss Daphne Mayo 1943
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

The Mystery behind William Dobell's The Cypriot 1940

In 1940, William Dobell returned to Australia after ten years in Europe. He produced a great painting, the portrait of his friend Aegus Gabrielides, The Cypriot 1940. But was it the first major painting he produced? What is the mystery behind The Cypriot?

To find out, look closely at the X-ray of the painting. You can clearly distinguish the image of The Cypriot (see illustration 1).

Now rotate the painting 90 degrees (see illustration 2).

What this reveals is that there is another completed painting which lies underneath The Cypriot.

Now compare the X-ray with the small watercolour study at the Art Gallery of New South Wales called Boy lounging (see illustration 3).

Clearly our X-ray also contains the 'bones' of Boy lounging which lies completed and unseen beneath The Cypriot.

Why did Dobell paint over his initial painting?

The artist was still poor, working with old brushes that had dried on the journey home. The abundance of brush hairs embedded in the painting's surface are testimony to this. Chemical analysis of the paint layers show that he was using a combination of oil-based house paints and artist's paints.

Dobell's economic situation, the large area of canvas to cover, as well as the scarcity of artist's oil paints (owing to their requisition for use by official war artists) all contributed to a combination of paints being used by the artist. Economics might also account for Dobell's re-use of the stretcher and canvas.

On his return to Australia, the publisher Sydney Ure Smith promoted Dobell as the 'heir to Lambert', and the artist felt compelled to produce his best work. But Boy lounging was not the 'masterpiece' the artist had aspired to produce on his return.

Unhappy with the finish of the painting, Dobell turned to the subject who had preoccupied him during his last six years in London. His many studies for The Cypriot stood him in good stead; he painted Gabrielides with great assurance and spirit. This is the artist at the peak of his painting technique. He draws inspiration from old master paintings he studied in Europe and, in this case, Bronzino in particular (see illustration 4).

Dobell's mature style in The Cypriot reconciles the problems confronting a modernist painter who wanted to refer to classic masters and to contemporary, interior tensions.

John Hook, Senior Conservator (Paintings)
Read more about William Dobell's The Cypriot 1940 in Collection highlights