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Jules François Archibald: Creator of the Archibald Prize, a Major Australian Portrait Prize

John Feltham Archibald was born in Victoria in 1856. He began a career in journalism at the age of fifteen in Warrnambool, Victoria. The popular idea of becoming a Bohemian in Artistic and Academic Circles inspired Feltham to move to Melbourne, the Australian cultural hot spot of that political era. In keeping with his fascination with French/European cultural experimentation, he changed his name to Jules François. Let’s Face It. P.Ross. 1999. p12

His desire to leave his mark of influence on Australian Politics and the newly developing Art World motivated him to build a large fountain in the middle of Sydney’s Hyde Park. The artwork commemorated the association of France and Australia in World War I. [Archibald History]

A Fascination for Cultural Identity

In 1880, he and a friend founded the radical journal called The Bulletin. It was nicknamed the “Bush Man’s Bible.” This journal was about the cultural identity of the nation. Identity of the Australian people and the historical development of Australia became his growing fascination.

  • The Bulletin became an influential journal designed to shape opinions and raise issues in the public’s consciousness.
  • His desire to enable high art that was locally inspired caused him to seek out fine young artists as illustrators.
  • In keeping with his interests, he served as a Trustee for the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
  • In a pioneering spirit, he sought to promote the work of younger artists and writers.

The Archibald Prize is Born

According to the NSW Art Gallery; Archibald commissioned John Longstaff to paint a portrait of poet Henry Lawson. Later his fascination with portraiture led him to leave money in his will for an annual portrait prize.

  • Dedicated to his legacy and named the Archibald Prize, it became a prestigious and well-funded annual event.
  • Due to its long association with Feltham, the New South Wales Art Gallery administrates this prize.
  • You can find application forms, competition rules and timelines on the official website.

Enduring Controversy

  • The Archibald terms stipulate that the portrait is of a “‘distinguished’ man or woman” and key Australian identity or figure
  • This necessitates artists define who is famous or a well-known contributor to the Australian community
  • As a result the competition shapes and is shaped by political commentary
  • The competition continues to ask Australian people examine their own self perceptions
  • People have become more aware of the multi cultural identity of Australia as a whole

From the beginning, the prize caused political controversy in Artistic and Cultural Circles. Leading the way in style, abstract modernity and political comment the prize chronicles the changing face of Australian society. “Numerous legal battles and much debate have focused on the evolving definitions of portraiture.” 2007 NSW Art Gallery.

People’s Choice Award

The controversy surrounding the modernity of and political influence of the decision making process led to the development of another more minor prize given to a participant from the same competition. Another judicial proclamation comes from the people’s choice and is announced to the Australian public at the same time as its parent competition. The People’s Choice is a more conservative competition and often seems to be the result of judgments about “Realistic Portrayal”.

The Archibald Prize has become one of the most famous and popular annual art exhibitions in Australia.