Artist's Biography

Born in Bognor Regis, in Sussex, England on 7 February 1912, Russell Drysdale arrived in Australia as a child and went on to become one of Australia’s most famous and influential artists. He died in New South Wales on 29 June, 1981.

Drysdale began his working life as a jackaroo, working afterwards in Queensland in the family sugar mills of which he eventually became a director. In 1933 he married Elizabeth Stephen. Meanwhile, his preliminary art studies with George Bell had been followed by full-time studies (1938-39), culminating in study and travel to London, Paris, and the 1939 Melbourne Herald exhibition of French and British Modern Art.

The catalyst that really shaped his career was his experience of World War II. Defective eyesight kept him out of the armed services that indirectly claimed the life of his best friend, Peter Purves Smith, whose widow was to become his second wife. What he could contribute to the war effort had to be through his art.

Russell Drysdale moved to Sydney where his friends included William Dobell, Donald Friend, and the critic Paul Haefliger. Drysdale’s French influences were now modified by what he had learnt from the work of the British wartime painters Sutherland and Piper, whose techniques and wartime vision led to the formation of a personal Drysdale style, strongly expressive of contemporary tensions and portents.

Formerly despised materials such as crayons and coloured inks (resorted to also as a wartime economy measure), made it possible to obtain dramatic acidity of colour, strongly expressive of the spirit of the times. The period yielded subjects such as aeroplane hangers at night, fire-devastated ruins and grouped figures in uniform, the latter deriving also from the influence of Henry Moore’s studies of figures in the London underground shelters.

In 1944 Drysdale applied these lessons to the expression of a different kind of tragedy, that of the drought conditions in northern New South Wales. As a preliminary to later paintings he made a series of line-and-wash drawings commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald. These drawings of erosion, decay and the bleached carcasses of animals represented the beginnings of a new era of Australian regional art; the subjects were soon extended to include deserted outback towns and landscapes in which long low horizon lines were opposed by the verticality of trees, buildings and figures. Paintings of ghost towns and pubs, each with its complement of elongated figures of stockmen, station hands and half-caste families occupied Drysdale’s energies for some years.

As time went on the dry reds and yellows, with accompanying browns, blacks, greys and whites, became allied to the rich tonal range of the Venetian masters whom Drysdale had studied in the Lourve in company with Peter Purves Smith during their joint early studies in Paris.

Drysdale made further trips overseas in 1950, 1957 and 1965, and between 1957 and 1965 toured by caravan through Central and Western Australia. This period produced some of his most dramatic canvases – in place of the former eloquent spaces the large, full figures of Aborigines began to fill his foregrounds. Snake Bay at Night, 1959, and Ceremony at the Rock Face, 1963 are among the paintings of this period.

Throughout his career his first love had been drawing. The hundreds of drawings that fill his sketch-books are like signposts pointing to the people, places, and events that gave him his unique place in the Australian art of his time.


With George Bell, Melbourne, 1931 and 1935-38; Grosvenor School, London, 1938-39; Le Grand Chaumière, Paris. 1939. Formally educated at a preparatory school in England, then at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Victoria.


In 1960 his work was the subject of a large retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; and a later retrospective was held at John Martin Galleries, Adelaide, in 1964 to coincide with the Adelaide Festival of Arts.


Wynne Prize in 1947, Melrose Prize in 1949, Britannica Australia award in 1965, Knighted in 1969 and conferred a Companion of the order of Australia, (C.A.) in 1980.


National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Art Gallery and Museum, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, many regional galleries, the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.