Judy Cassab: Meet the Family

The name Judy Cassab is synonymous with Australian landscape painting and portraiture. Sydney Jewish Museum holds some of her most personal paintings

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Judy Cassab in her Studio (1992) by Mark Tedeschi AM QCSydney Jewish Museum

"My art work is so intrinsically interwoven in the fabric of my being that I cannot conceive of any sort of existence without it." - Judy Cassab

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Beregszasz Synagogue by Unknown PhotographerSydney Jewish Museum

Judy Cassab was born in Vienna in 1920 to Hungarian parents. She lived from age nine with her mother and grandmother in Beregszasz. Judy drew her first portrait at 12, a charcoal sketch of her grandmother. It soon became known that she had a gift for creating a likeness.

Judy's first subjects were her family.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Anyu (Judy's Mother), Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1937, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Apu (Judy's Father), Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1937, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Shortly before her 18th birthday, Judy met Jancsi Kampfner. He proposed three weeks later, promising to always support her in her chosen career as an artist.

Judy began to pursue her studies. She enrolled at the Academy of Art in Prague but her studies were disrupted by Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. In 1941, Jancsi was conscripted into a forced labour unit of the Hungarian Army. Judy headed to Budapest to study painting, but on 19 March 1944, Germany occupied Hungary.

European Deportees (1944-05-01) by Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

The Germans entered Beregszasz on 31 March - 12,000 Jews were transferred to the ghetto and from there, in a series of 'Aktions', they were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. 

Judy’s mother, stepfather and grandmother and her husband's family were never seen again.

To survive, Judy got baptised as Catholic and took on the identity of Maria Koperdak - the family maid.

"I was an outcast with my maid’s identity, persecuted, hiding, alert for my life. I went through the unspeakable agony of knowing my mother burnt in the ovens of Auschwitz and burnt were the whole family, and my childhood with them."

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Burning Synagogue 1944 (Beregszasz) (1987) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

Haunted by the tragedy of her past

The once vibrant Jewish community of Beregszász had been destroyed. Judy paints the burning synagogue, the deportation of men, women and children...faceless figures ascending into heaven.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab John (Janos) (Judy's Son) (1946) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

Motherhood gives her art a new intimacy

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Peter (Judy's Son) (1948) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

Their first son, Janos was born on New Year’s Eve 1945. Their second son Peter was born in September 1947. 

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Judy with her sons, John and Peter (1956) by Unknown PhotographerSydney Jewish Museum

The artist juggled motherhood and career

Occasional diary entries lamented the unproductive household chores which took away time from painting: “While painting a portrait the meatloaf cooks in the oven, and my cabbage in tomato sauce bubbles over the stove”.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Self Portrait (2007) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

Arriving in Australia in 1951, a letter of introduction to Charles Lloyd Jones whose family owned David Jones department store, results in her first commission - to paint his wife. 

Judy gradually improved her English and joined the Contemporary Art Society. She was at ease with Sydney’s migrant artists' community.

Painters respected her talent and professionalism; she began to be noticed by journalists and photographers.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Portrait of the Hon Sydney D Einfeld AO, Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1977, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Study for Dr Gene Sherman, Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1996, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Portrait of the Hon Sydney D Einfeld AO (1977) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

Her ability to capture the character of  portrait sitters gained her commissions from princesses to local celebrities. 

Her sons, daughter-in-laws, husband and grandchildren continued to be a natural subject for the artist. Her biographer Brenda Niall noted:

“Sitters became friends; friends became sitters. Portraiture suited Judy’s sociable self. While the sitters responded to her warmth and interest in their lives, her intuitive grasp of personality brought stronger insights to the portraits.”

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab John Seed, Judy Cassab AO CBE, 2003, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Bodhi (Judy's Grandson), Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1989, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Jansci Reading The Morning Paper, Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1989, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab John Seed & Shan Hailey, Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1966, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Peter and Skye, Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1993, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Walker on Mountain (1987) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

From portraits to landscapes...

Determined not be categorised just as a portrait painter, in 1959, Judy set out for Alice Springs.

It wasn't long before Cassab gained recognition for her expressionistic and abstract interpretation of the Australian landscape.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Night Falling (1985) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

The colours and shapes of the Australian desert inspired her, becoming a vehicle for a fascination with juxtaposing smooth, flat planes of colour with more tactile, textured surface areas.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab The Road Through (1985) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

"I understand, for the first time since arriving in Australia, that one can love the soil," she penned in her diary.

She painted many still lifes, using objects that surrounded her in her home. One might consider these still life paintings as a reflection of an inner landscape.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Reflection, Judy Cassab AO CBE, 1998, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Still Life With Teapot, Judy Cassab AO CBE, 2013, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Vase with Two Flowers, Judy Cassab AO CBE, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Reflection (1998) by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

Fun fact

The tablecloth, featuring figures in traditional Hungarian costume, was brought from Hungary to Australia as a memento from her past. She used it as a motif over and over.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Still Life with Hungarian Tablecloth by Judy Cassab AO CBESydney Jewish Museum

Australian flora

Judy's choice of native flora can be seen as a further symbolic embracement of the Australian landscape. 

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Judy Cassab painting in her Studio (2013) by Juno GemesSydney Jewish Museum

In her studio with the tools of her trade

Judy Cassab died in November 2015, leaving behind a significant body of work. As a migrant and as a woman, she overcame multiple remarkable obstacles to define her place and purpose as an artist.

Judy painted over one thousand portraits during her lifetime.

Meet the Family: The Private Judy Cassab Judy Cassab posing with a portrait (2014)Sydney Jewish Museum

She painted up to the end!

Judy was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1969), Officer of the Order of Australia (1988), and honoured by the Hungarian government with the Gold Cross of Merit (2011).


Judy had countless exhibitions and received coveted awards, including winning the Archibald Prize twice, in 1961 and 1968.

Credits: Story

Curator: Roslyn Sugarman

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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