Australia is obsessed with sport. It's a country that believes - in the words of one popular comic duo - that "too much sport is barely enough". Take football, for example, which is represented by not one but at least four codes: soccer, rugby union, rugby league and our very own 'Aussie rules'. We've hosted the summer Olympic Games twice - in 1956 in Melbourne and in 2000 in Sydney - and cling to a record that sees us regularly in the top ten countries in the overall Olympic medal tally each games, despite being below 50th in world rankings in population size. So, in a nation where sports people are elevated almost to demi-gods, it's not surprising that they are also a popular subject for Australia's favourite portrait competition - the Archibald Prize - which is held annually at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. These portraits must have been painted in the 12 months leading up to the competition, and must be painted from life, which means the person who is the subject must have had at least one 'sitting' with the artist. First awarded in 1921, the prize was established by journalist and Bulletin magazine founder JF Archibald (1856-1919), with the aim of fostering portraiture, supporting artists and perpetuating the memory of great Australians.
Kirpy, 'Dylan', from Archibald Prize 2019
Born in 1990, Dylan Alcott has achieved global success in not just one, but two sports. In 2008 in Beijing, he won his first Paralympic medal – the youngest wheelchair basketball gold medallist in history. He followed that with a gold medal at the 2010 IWBF World Wheelchair Basketball Championship in England (where he was also named in the World All-Star Five) and a silver medal in wheelchair basketball at the 2012 London Paralympics. He then launched his wheelchair tennis career and has since won two gold medals at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, in men’s quad singles and doubles. In 2019 he claimed all four Grand Slam trophies, including the inaugural quad singles titles at Wimbledon and the French Open as well as the US Open (for the second time) and the Australian Open (for the fifth time).
Alcott is also an author, media personality and disability ambassador, who has founded both the musical festival Ability Fest and the Dylan Alcott Foundation.
He and artist Kirpy have been friends for many years and the two of them discussed the idea of a portrait – which was subsequently a finalist in the 2019 Archibald Prize – after Kirpy watched Alcott play the first-ever wheelchair tennis exhibition match at Wimbledon in 2018.
Kim Leutwyler, 'Heyman', from Archibald Prize 2017
Michelle Heyman is a striker in the Australian women's national soccer team, known as the Matildas, and represented Australia at the Rio Olympics in 2016. An openly gay athlete, she is also passionate about being a role model for children and speaks out against bullying. Artist Kim Leutwyler painted Heyman’s portrait for the 2017 Archibald Prize, and included cadmium chartreuse - a greenish yellow - which is reminiscent of the Matildas uniform. Leutwyler always tries to incorporate colours that reflect her sitter’s personality. "Michelle is really drawn to greys and bright blues, and likes to wear black and white with little pops of red... I hope this portrait will stimulate a conversation about inclusivity, equality and authenticity." she says.
Imants Tillers, 'All hail Greg Inglis', from Archibald Prize 2019
"Many artists, writers, actors and other cultural workers secretly follow sport,’" says artist Imants Tillers, who painted rugby league great Greg Inglis for the 2019 Archibald Prize.
Captain of the South Sydney Rabbitohs and previously with the Melbourne Storm, Inglis retired in April 2019 after playing 263 NRL games (including five grand finals), 39 international games for Australia and 32 State of Origin games for Queensland. In 2009 he was named the best rugby league player in the world, receiving the Golden Boot Award.
Tillers has been a Rabbitohs supporter since 1965, when as a 15-year-old he attended the legendary grand final between South Sydney and St George. "To witness Greg Inglis in full flight, equipped with a fend that could stop a freight train, is to see poetry in motion," said Tillers. "But there is far more to Greg Inglis than being an elite Indigenous athlete. He is a hero and role model to Indigenous communities all around Australia, and a community leader of enormous influence."
Alan Jones, 'Adam', from Archibald Prize 2014
In 2014, Adam Goodes broke the record for most games played by an Indigenous footballer in the Australian Football League (AFL). This honour was added to his long list of accolades as a dual Brownlow Medallist, dual premiership winner, four-time All-Australian, member of the Indigenous Team of the Century, and Australian representative in the International Rules Series. The same year, he was named Australian of the Year for his community work and his advocacy against racism, and this dual portrait by artist Alan Jones - intended to convey the many facets of Goodes’ life - was a popular finalist in the 2014 Archibald Prize. Says Jones: "I wanted to capture his warm, gentle nature quite separately to the footballer fans see each week. Adam is an amazing athlete but also so much more than that: he is a son, a brother, an extremely proud Indigenous Australian (Adnyamathanha and Narungga on his mother’s side), an active campaigner for constitutional recognition and a great role model in so many ways." Goodes retired from Aussie rules in 2015 after 17 seasons with the Sydney Swans.
Megan Roodenrys, 'Waiting for the day', from Archibald Prize 2009
The stellar career of Australian rules footballer player Ben Cousins (who retired from the game in 2010) was marred by controversy. Among the most notorious incidents was a one-year ban from the Australian Football League (AFL) competition in 2007 for his off-field behaviour, including recreational drug use. "Prior to October 2007, I had never seen nor heard of Ben Cousins, never having followed football, or any sport for that matter," says artist Megan Roodenrys, who painted his portrait for the 2009 Archibald Prize. "We were watching TV one day and saw the news footage of Ben being escorted by police from his car in broad daylight and commented on how it would feel to have your personal struggles dragged out in front of the public. And also, how so many ordinary people have found themselves in Ben’s position, while their struggle remains private. I have always had a great deal of respect for people who are trying to overcome addiction issues." Roodenrys wanted to document a difficult time of self-examination. "I wanted to represent a strong and purposeful man in a vulnerable, uncertain state, all his nerves exposed."
Nicolee Payne, 'Fuifui Moimoi', from Archibald Prize 2014
Fuifui Moimoi began his first-grade rugby league career with Sydney club the Parramatta Eels in 2004, where he quickly earned the admiration of the fans along with nicknames such as Steam Train, Wrecking Ball and the Tongan Torpedo. Over the years, he has become a cult hero at the club. Artist Nicolee Payne decided to paint this Archibald Prize 2014 portrait after meeting him. "I had painted a portrait of him as a gift for my daughter and asked him to sign it for her at a fan day," she says. "What I saw in him that day was a kind, humble and gentle man: quite the opposite to the tough front-row forward on the football field. I wanted to try and capture those two contrasting persona in the one expression so that the viewer not only connected with the fearless warrior he carries in him from his Tongan ancestors but could also look into his eyes and see his beautiful, gentle soul."
Peter Smeeth, 'Peter FitzSimons, author', from Archibald Prize 2010
While he now has a high profile as an author and newspaper columnist, Peter FitzSimons first came to public attention as a rugby union player, representing Australia as a Wallaby in seven tests between 1989 and 1990. In every guise, he is known for his outspokenness and wit. This portrait from the 2010 Archibald Prize was painted in artist Peter Smeeth’s studio and involved over 200 hours of work. Smeeth visited FitzSimons at his Sydney home and spent a couple of hours with him chatting, sketching and taking photos. Says Smeeth: "I basically asked how he would like to be painted and he said, 'This is what I’m like. I don’t dress up. This is me.' He said that while some blokes his age get a red sports car, he has taken to wearing a red bandana, which his sons bought in Cuba. He’s a big man – two metres tall – and I wanted to convey that sense of mass along with the 'I-don’t-suffer-fools' look in his eyes."
Craig Ruddy, 'Cathy Freeman', from Archibald Prize 2011
For many Australians, our greatest sporting moment was when runner Cathy Freeman won the 400 metre final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, uniting a nation. A few years earlier, at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, she had provided another defining moment as she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags during her victory lap, demonstrating her love and pride in her heritage. In 1998, she was named Australian of the Year. Through her dedication in sport and her commitment to reconciliation, Freeman has been an inspiration. Says artist Craig Ruddy, who painted this portrait of Freeman for the 2011 Archibald Prize: "She has such a humble and down-to-earth charm. I really wanted to capture this along with her strength, determination and free-spirited nature."
Phillip Barnes, 'Anna Meares', from Archibald Prize 2014
One of Australia's greatest athletes, cyclist Anna Meares staged one of the sport's greatest comebacks. Ten days after a life-threatening track accident in January 2008 in which she broke her neck, she was back training for the Beijing Olympics, where she won silver just seven months later. In all, Meares won 11 World Championships, six Olympic medals (including a Gold and Bronze in Athens in 2004 and in London in 2012, and a Bronze in Rio in 2016) and five Commonwealth Games Gold medals, before retiring in 2016. Artist Philip Barnes painted Meares for the 2014 Archibald Prize, capturing "the transformation that comes over her when she slips on her race helmet" and the intense focus and determination that enabled her to achieve so highly.
Zoe Young, 'Torah Bright', from Archibald Prize 2014
Champion snowboarder Torah Bright is Australia’s most successful female winter Olympian, winning a Gold in Vancouver in 2010 and a Silver in Sochi in 2014 (where she was the only athlete to compete in all three snowboarding disciplines). Artist Zoe Young, who painted this portrait of Bright for the 2014 Archibald Prize, trained as a ski racer with Bright’s older siblings. Says Young: "Originally I planned to do an epic painting, something larger-than-life that captured the excitement and daring tricks of her sport, something really bright, maybe even with a splash of glitter." Instead, she opted to paint a calm, introspective moment, "somewhere between the guts and the glory", and added rosewater to the acrylic paint on ply.
Peter Clifton Kendall, 'Underdog', from Archibald Prize 2010
"Danny Green is a world champion boxer but in the period approaching his world title fight with Roy Jones Junior in November 2009, when this portrait was painted, he was an underdog," says artist Peter Kendall. "Roy Jones Junior was considered one of the greatest fighters of all time but in the fight, Danny took just 122 seconds to deliver a knockout and end the contest. As befits the underdog, I have portrayed Danny in the counter-attack stance, prepared to defend, avoid and retaliate." Kendall wanted to portray Green – the Green Machine to his fans – in peak physical condition. He envisaged a painting that captured Green’s energy, strength and fierce training regime, which he achieved watching Green in a gym in Sydney during the boxer’s final workout before the fight after months of preparation. The resulting portrait was a finalist in the Archibald Prize 2010.
Abdul Abdullah, 'The man', from Archibald Prize 2013
Nicknamed The Man, Anthony Mundine is a professional boxer and ex-professional rugby league player. A member of the Bundjalung people, he was named the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander of the Year in 2000. Artist Abdul Abdullah became convinced there was more to Mundine than sport during the promotional tour before Mundine's 2006 fight with Danny Green (whose portrait, Underdog, by Peter Clifton Kendall is also in this group). "Mundine was represented as the bad guy who talked too much", says Abdullah. "But... he was down-to-earth, well spoken, and generous with his time." Abdullah says he didn’t want to portray Mundine as a boxer in this 2013 Archibald Prize portrait. "I wanted to show the earnest, deep-thinking person I believe he is. I wanted to show the warrior who fights for a cause bigger than himself. The crown is a nod to Basquiat’s portrayal of Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali."
Tom Macbeth, 'Jessica', from Archibald Prize 2011
Jessica Watson is the youngest person to have sailed solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world, returning to Sydney on 15 May 2010, three days before her 17th birthday. She was named the 2011 Young Australian of the Year. "Like many thousands of Australians, I followed Jessica’s journey around the world quite closely and was swept up in the moment of her arrival and the patriotism it instilled in us," says artist Tom Macbeth, who has a daughter the same age. Watson sat for the 2011 Archibald Prize portrait on board her project manager's yacht on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, where she is from. The portrait was later painted a few square centimetres at a time. Using very thin layers of oil, Macbeth finished one small section before moving on to the next.
Peter Clifton Kendall, 'Peter Brock', from Archibald Prize 2004
Known as Brocky or Peter Perfect, Peter Brock is a motor racing icon. As well as three Touring Car Championships and nine wins at Sandown, he won Australia's premier motorsport event, the Bathurst 1000, a record nine times, earning him the title ‘King of the Mountain’. The Bathurst race winner's trophy has been named after him since his death, at age 61, in a rally accident in 2006. Artist Peter Kendall played with several concepts for this 2004 Archibald Prize painting of Brock before deciding to bring his portrait painting together with his abstract and conceptual art for the first time. "I didn’t plan it; his personality demanded it," said Kendall. "The picture needed power and energy in it. It’s a running joke that I use a lot of red but there was no analytical approach, it was just that it suited his nature and his presence. It just demanded the red and that big black stroke."
Gillie and Marc Schattner, 'John and his black dog', from Archibald Prize 2006
In 1958, at the age of 15, John Konrads broke all the freestyle swimming world records from 200 to 1500 metres. He represented Australia at the Olympic Games in 1956 in Melbourne, 1960 in Rome (where he won Gold in the 1500m) and 1964 in Tokyo. This portrait from the 2006 Archibald Prize is by Gillie and Marc Schattner, who are married to each other and work collaboratively as artists. They had initially wanted to paint the swimming great lying on the ocean until they learned from him that the most significant issue that he faced at the time was living with depression. British prime minister Winston Churchill had referred to his own depression as his ‘black dog’ and John too always has the black dog of depression by his side. However, John told the artists that the most important thing was to paint him smiling because he wanted to appear positive. Says Gillie: "The background of the portrait is quite splattered and random to signify the ups and downs of his bi-polar disorder. The use of metallic silver around the image symbolises a mirror because we wanted the image to reflect the way John sees himself. We have painted the black dog with sadness in his eyes because he wears the face of depression and allows John to wear the face of hope."
Kordelya Zhansui Chi, 'Mr Walker', from Archibald Prize 2010
Cricket legend Max Walker - who died in 2016, aged 68 - pulled on the baggy green for Australia in 34 Test matches between 1973 and 1981. His idiosyncratic bowling style led to his nickname, Tangles. With a larrikin charm and an immediately recognisable voice, he later became a much-loved sports commentator as well as a bestselling author. Fewer people remember that he also played Australian Rules football, racking up 94 senior games with the Melbourne Football Club between 1967 and 1972. Artist Kordelya Zhansui Chi painted Walker for the 2010 Archibald Prize. "In person, Max often surprises people," she said. "Many don’t realise he is so tall and broad." Chi also remarked on "his twinkling eyes, the nose that has been broken many times in sporting events, the smooth skin and distinguished white hair." But it was, unsurprisingly, his smile that captured her attention.
Produced by Tamara Tobing
Written by Kirsten Tilgals
All artworks © the artists
All photos © Art Gallery of New South Wales