Sidney Nolan is one of Australia’s most beloved home-grown artists. His paintings are among the most recognised artworks in Australia today.
Nolan sought to interpret historical and legendary figures throughout his life. He honed in on larger than life characters from Australian folklore, including Burke and Wills and Eliza Fraser.
His landmark 1946 Ned Kelly series of 27 paintings have been memorialised in Australian art history. With a rectangular head portraying the infamous outlaw’s legendary armoured costume, his paintings were big, bold, colourful and unusual.
Nolan’s success came from the authentically Australian quality to his works. Whether he was portraying historical characters or scenes of Central Australia, he evoked magic in the Aussie outback.
Yet from the early 1950s onwards, he left the land he recreated so well on canvas to live instead mainly in Britain. There, he designed sets for the ballet and opera and provided illustrations for books.
But there was more to Sidney Nolan than the artist. Here are seven things you never knew about Australia’s popular painter:
1. His father (also Sidney) was a Melbourne tram driver
Nolan was born on 22 April 1917 in the inner-city suburb of Carlton. He was the first of four children to fifth-generation Irish parents Sidney and Dora. And yes, Nolan’s father made his living driving trams in inner Melbourne.
2. He left school at age 14.
Nolan attended the Brighton Road State School, followed by the Brighton Technical School, before dropping out. But from there he enrolled in the Department of Design and Crafts at the Prahran Technical College, and went on to attend night classes at the National Gallery of Victoria design school.
3. He was torn between being an artist or a poet
Nolan was obsessed with the works of French poet Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud. But thank god he followed his visual artistic pursuits, otherwise we wouldn’t have his amazing Australian paintings to boast about, like this one:
4. He was passionate about all things French
Whether it was poetry or paintings, Nolan revelled in French arts. He drew inspiration from 19th-century painter Henri Rousseau. He also loved Picasso and Cézanne. And in 1957, he studied engraving and lithography at Atelier 17 in Paris.
5. He had three wives
His first wife was fellow Gallery School student Elizabeth Patterson. Three years and a baby girl later, they separated and Nolan moved in with art patrons John and Sunday Reed.
A long and open affair ensued between Sunday Reed and Nolan until Nolan married John Reed’s sister, Cynthia Hansen in 1948. Their marriage ended when Cynthia committed suicide in 1976.
Finally he married Mary Boyd (John Perceval’s ex-wife), sister of artists David and Arthur Boyd. They lived a happy marriage until his death in 1992.
6. He deserted from the military during World War II
Sidney Nolan was conscripted into the army in 1942 and served at Dimboola in the Wimmera District of Victoria.
But the military clearly wasn’t for him. In 1945, facing the prospect of being sent to the frontline in New Guinea, he deserted and returned to Melbourne where he lived mostly with the Reeds at their Melbourne residence Heide.
"My conduct as an artist and as a soldier have finally proved incompatible," was his simple reflection on the matter.
7. His Ned Kelly imagery was a key feature in the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremony
Sydney used their Olympic Games Opening Ceremony to celebrate all things Australian – and what better way to combine legend with art than to have hundreds of performers donning Ned Kelly costumes based on Nolan’s now famous portrayal of the criminal? To complete the effect, one painting from the Ned Kelly series was beamed onto the giant stadium screen, visible to millions of viewers worldwide.
Sidney Nolan is said to have painted some 35,000 paintings. Among those thousands are works that will remain a central part of Australian culture for future generations.
Nolan died in London on 28 November 1992, aged 75. He had been knighted and given honours as a standout artists in countries around the world. And in time he will no doubt become one of Australia’s great historical figures he so enjoyed portraying himself.
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