Australian Art


Brett Whiteley
Brett Whiteley

Born: 1939 Sydney

Died: 1992
  • Contemporary
  • Painter
  • Known
  • Established
Brett Whiteley Painting
Brett Whiteley Painting

Brett Whiteley: The Alchemist of Australian Art

Brett Whiteley (1939 – 1992) was one of the most important Australian painters of the 20th Century. He exhibited frequently in Australia and around the world during his lifetime and lived and worked in his home country and also in Italy, Britain, Fiji and America. His work is held in many international collections and galleries.
Early life
Whiteley was born in Sydney on 7th April 1939 and grew up at his family home in Lucretia Avenue in Longueville. He was a keen artist from an early age and won his first art competition in 1946 when he was only seven years old – it was the annual RSPCA art show at Farmer’s Blaxland Gallery and the winning picture that the young Whiteley entered was entitled The Driver Sits in the Shade but What About the Horse?.
Whiteley attended boarding school at Scots College, Bathurst, and between 1954 and 1955 he briefly studied at Scots College in Sydney. In 1956, he won first prize in the Young Painters’ Section at the Bathurst Show, New South Wales and in the same year another pivotal moment in his life occurred when he met his muse and future wife Wendy Julius. The pair met at the National Art School East Sydney where Julius was studying and Whiteley was attending life drawing classes; friend and fellow Sydney artist Michael Johnson also occasionally joined these classes.
In 1959, Whiteley entered four paintings for an Italian scholarship and subsequently won the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship for 1960. He spent his time in Italy living and working in Rome and Florence and also took the opportunity to explore other parts of Europe including Paris and London – in November 1960 he moved to London where Michael Johnson was already living.
Whiteley in London
Living in west London, Whiteley came into contact with British artists William Scott, Roger Hilton and other UK-based Australian artists including Arthur Boyd and John Passmore; these artists and the modernist British art scene in general had a profound influence on his painting which developed an abstract style. In November 1960, his work featured in the exhibition Survey of Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Gallery including a piece entitled Untitled Red Painting which the Tate Gallery bought for its collection. During his time in London he worked on several series of paintings which focussed on themes including bathing, London Zoo and the murderer John Christie – the killer committed his crimes close to where Whiteley was living in Ladbroke Grove.
In March 1962, Whiteley married Wendy Julius at the Chelsea Registry Office and the couple’s daughter Arkie was born in November 1964.
Whiteley in New York
Throughout the mid-1960s, href="" target="_blank">Whiteley painted prolifically, travelled and exhibited widely including shows in Europe, Australia and America. In 1967, the artist won the Harkness Fellowship Scholarship to study and work in New York and moved to live in a penthouse apartment in the Hotel Chelsea. In New York he became influenced by the city’s art scene and deeply interested in the peace movement. He set about creating a monumental painting and collage work constructed from 18 wooden panels entitled The American Dream, which he believed would persuade the US to pull out of the war in Vietnam. After a year of working on the piece it was a massive 22-metre long double-sided work that had one side depicting a dream-like seascape and the other a hellish and apocalyptic scene of destruction and chaos.
The painting reflected Whiteley’s experiences with alcohol and drugs including marijuana and heroin, and shows the influence which the 60's counter-culture played. Having invested so much time and effort in The American Dream Whitely was shocked when his representative gallery Marlborough-Gerson refused to exhibit the work – in a state of distress Whiteley fled New York and decided to seek refuge in Fiji. During this period, other artists who were living at the Hotel Chelsea were using heroin and Whiteley and Wendy first tried the drug while living there – it was intended to be a one-off experiment but was the start of a lifelong addiction that would eventually end in tragedy. In later years Whiteley became increasingly dependent on alcohol and addicted to heroin and although he made many attempts at sobriety, withdrawal and detox, he ultimately failed. His anxieties and addictions were reflected in his paintings, notably in works such the triptych Art, Life and the Other Thing which includes an image of a mad, shackled and chained baboon being offered a syringe of heroin; the tortured monkey is a symbol of his own torments and addiction, an addiction that would finally end with a fatal overdose.
Whiteley in Fiji
By travelling to Fiji Whiteley was following in the footsteps of Paul Gauguin and like his 19th Century predecessor he painted pictures of the native people of Fiji. During the five months he lived in Fiji he also started painting the beautiful birds he saw on the island.
In 1970, Whiteley returned to live in Australia and rented the Gasworks Studio in Waverton, Sydney. In 1972, he began work on Alchemy, one of his masterpieces which would go on to feature on the cover of the Dire Straits live album Alchemy. The painting, completed in 1973 and spread over 18 wood panels, is a veritable explosion of ideas and imagery including a bursting sun from an unfinished portrait of author Yukio Mishima (the writer had committed seppuku – Japanese ritual suicide - in 1970), as well as bird feathers and eggs, plugs, brains, shells and a glass eye. A guitar with lips was added for the purposes of the album cover.
During the 1970s, Whiteley painted numerous landscapes including the view of Sydney Harbour, which was one of hisfavourite subjects. He also worked on pictures of the New South Wales coastline, the landscapes around Bathurst, Oberon and Marulan and the scenery of the Australian bush.
Prize winner
In the late 1970s, Whiteley’s achievements as an artist were recognized when he won Australia’s three most important art prizes: the Archibald (1976 and 1978), the Wynne (1977 and 1978) and the Sulman (1976 and 1978). The prizes of 1978 made him the only artist to win all three awards in the same year; he went on to win the Wynne prize a third time in 1984.
Difficult Pleasure
In 1989, filmmaker Don Featherstone directed a documentary about Whiteley’s life and work in which he discussed his work and the themes it explores. The title Difficult Pleasure reflects how the artist felt about the painting process.
Last days
In the 1980s, Whiteley continued to travel around the world and exhibit his work; although he was producing less work his paintings’ market value continued to grow. Part of the reason for the decline in output was his dependency on alcohol and the development of an addiction to heroin. In 1989, Whiteley and Wendy were divorced. In 1991, he was named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list and awarded Officer (AO) of the Order of Australia.
On 15th June 1992 Whiteley was found dead in a hotel room in Thirroul, New South Wales. He had died from a heroin overdose at 53 years of age.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales acquired Whiteley’s studio at 2 Raper Street in Surry Hills where he lived and worked during the final years of his life. The Brett Whitely Studio is now a museum of his life and art, complete with the unfinished paintings he was working on at the time of his death: sketches, research material, books, graffiti on the walls along with a changing exhibitions of the artist’s work.
Brett Whiteley Painting
Brett Whiteley Painting


Wins first art competition with "The Driver Sits in the Shade But What About the Horse?" at the Annual RSPCA exhibition held at Farmer's Blaxland Gallery.


Wins art award, Young Painters Section at the Bathurst Show in New South Wales.


Wins the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship in November.

Judged by Australian artist Sir Russell Drysdale at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The works exhibited were Sofala, Dixon Street, July, and Around Bathurst.


Exhibits work in the group exhibition at the McRoberts and Tunnard Gallery, London from the 20th July to the 1st of September. Sells three gouache paintings.

Is awarded a grant under the Dyason Bequest from The Art Gallery of NSW.

Works in Paris from September to October after being awarded the Arts Advisory Board Scholarship.

International Prix at the 2nd Biennale, Paris.

Represents the Australian National Committee in June at the International Association of Plastic Arts, organized by UNESCO at the Meeting of Young Painters.

Three works selected for the "Survey of Recent Australian Painting" exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. Paintings include, "Untitled Red Painting (1960)", "Untitled White Painting (1960)", and "Untitled Dark Painting (1961)".


Exhibits at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Exhibits at the Berlin World Fair in the Stuyvesant Collection, and travels to Baden-Baden, Stuttgart and to Venice for the Biennale.


Work selected for the "Australian Painting" exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London. Painting were also hung in the "British Paintings in the 1960s" exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, that also toured Great Britain and Switzerland.


Awarded International Drawing Prize for "Bather and Heater (1964)", International der Zeichnung, Darmstadt, Germany.

Awarded travelling grant from The Stuyvesant Foundation.

Perth Festival Art Prize, Australia.

Exhibits at the Whitechapel Gallery, London in "The New Generation 1964" exhibition.


Exhibited in De Hendendaagse Schilderkunst in Austria, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy.

Exhibits in the "Treasures from the Commonwealth" Commonwealth Festival exhibition, Burlington House, London.

Exhibits work in "The English Eye" exhibition at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York.

T.E. Wardle Invitation Art Prize, Perth, Australia.


Exhibits in an exhibition with British artist David Hockney and Australian artist Arthur Boyd.

Exhibited at Clune Galleries, Sydney with "The Zoo Graphics" series of works.

Included in an exhibition of the Mertz Collection "The Australian Painters 1964-1966" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, USA.

Exhibits in "British Graphics" Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Exhibits in a group show at Marlborough New London Gallery, London.

Exhibits in a group show at Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels.


Exhibits at Pittsburgh International Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, USA and is awarded the Harkness Foundation Scholarship.

Exhibits in a group exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.


Exhibits in a group show "The Bonsai Show", Australian Galleries, Melbourne.


Exhibits n the "Australian Painters and Tapestries of the Past 20 Years" New South Wales House, London.


Completes "Alchemy" in January and exhibits it at Bonython Gallery, Sydney.


Sir William Anglis Memorial Prize, Melbourne.

Included in the "Australian Painting" exhibition, China.


Archibald Prize for "Self Portrait in the Studio".

Sulman Prize for "Interior with Time Past".


Wynne Prize for "The Jacaranda Tree".


Wynne Prize for "Summer at Carcoar"

Sulman Prize for "Yellow Nude"

Archibald Prize for "Art, Life and the Other Thing"

Exhibits 4 works at the Cologne International Art Fair.


Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales with "South Coast After the Rain"


Order of Australia in the General Division.


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