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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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Rupert C.W. Bunny

1928
Arthur T. Woodward

watercolour and gouache on strawboard (support: 60.6 cm x 44.0 cm)

Rupert Charles Wulsten Bunny (1864–1947) was one of the most celebrated Australian expatriate artists of his generation, achieving a degree of success in Paris in the 1890s and early 1900s that was unmatched by his peers. Born and raised in Melbourne, he studied at Melbourne's National Gallery School from 1881 to 1883 alongside artists such as Frederick McCubbin and John Longstaff, and travelled throughout Europe for two years as a young man, gaining a fluency in French and German that was vital to the furthering of his artistic career. Bunny departed for London in 1884, where he attended classes at St John's Wood Art School under Philip Calderon. Two years later, he enrolled in the Paris atelier of Jean-Paul Laurens, an academic history painter, before completing his training at Académie Colarossi in 1890 under Pierre Paul Léon Glaize. As a result, he mastered academic history painting (large scale, complex compositions based on mythological, historical and biblical subjects, typically involving multiple figures). Bunny often drew on the German myths and legends he had learned as a child from his German mother, and the biblical narratives and classical Greek and Roman myths taught to him by his English father. Exhibiting at the Parisian Salon de la Société des Artistes Français (Old Salon) from 1888, Bunny was the first Australian painter to receive an honourable mention, for his painting The Tritons.

During the same period Bunny also painted pastorals, blending the technical virtuosity required of history painting with the influence of French Symbolism, with its concern for the use of imagination to convey emotion through suggestion. Among Bunny’s other sources of inspiration were contemporary thought, music and poetry, the artist being a talented pianist and composer himself. It is said that Dame Nellie Melba, whom Bunny painted several times, would have liked him for her accompanist. In addition to his portraits of Melba – among them the fabulously imperious Madame Melba c. 1902 (held by the NGV) – Bunny created portraits of a number of Europe-based Australian musicians and performers including Percy Grainger and Ada Crossley. He met his future wife, Jeanne Heloise Morel (1871–1933) in 1895. A fellow art student, Morel became the subject of many of Bunny's paintings, modelling for his iconic compositions capturing the idylls and leisured life of the Belle Epoque. Influenced by Morel, whom her married in 1902, and her friends, and also by the British pre-Raphaelite painters, Bunny's most recognised works include A summer morning c. 1908 (AGNSW Collection) and other, large-scale paintings depicting languid, dreaming female figures alone or in groups.

By the Parisian Autumn Salon of 1913, Bunny's works increasingly displayed heightened colour and compositional rhythm. Moving away from naturalism, his paintings of this period evidence the influence of Matisse and of the spectacle of the Ballet Russes productions. The late 1920s saw Bunny focus on landscape, a genre which previously had rarely captured his attention. Following the death of his wife in 1932, which occurred when Bunny was visiting Melbourne, he returned permanently to Australia. He joined the Melbourne contemporary art scene and exhibited with progressive artist groups as well as holding solo exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney. In 1946 he was given a major retrospective in his hometown, which confirmed his reputation as one of Australia's most significant artists. Bunny died in 1946, aged 82.

Though his reputation in Australia waxed and waned during his career, this has since been interpreted as a reflection of ongoing debates about the character of Australian art, and the reluctance on the part of Australian audiences to value the work of Australian artists whose subject matter was not demonstrably 'Australian'. His reputation and his place in the canon of Australian art, however, has since been confirmed with several major retrospectives of his work. These include Rupert Bunny: An Australian in Paris at the then Australian National Gallery (National Gallery of Australia) in 1991–1992; and Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris, curated by Deborah Edwards for the Art Gallery of New South Wales and which toured nationally in 2000. His work is held in collections in Australia and overseas, including thirteen works collected in France during his lifetime.

Gift of Ben Travers 2021. Donated through Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

Artist and subject

Arthur T. Woodward (age 63 in 1928)

Rupert Bunny (age 64 in 1928)

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The Companion

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On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba
Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba
Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba
Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba

Doodles of the Diva

Magazine article by Dr Sarah Engledow, 2010

Three tiny sketches of Dame Nellie Melba in the NPG collection were created by the artist who was to go on to paint the most imposing representation of the singer: Rupert Bunny.

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The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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