The Art of the Archibald Prize


Jules François Archibald (left) with famous Australian poet Henry Lawson.

More contentious than all our other art exhibitions put together, the Archibald is back in 2017.

It’s here, it’s big, it’s loud, and it will be controversial – again. I’m beginning to wonder if the art in the Archibald actually means anything. The artists reluctantly do it, the critics hate it, and most people love to pull it apart. So where does that leave those of us who go to this exhibition that are simply art lovers? Usually feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed by the hype that surrounds this thing that is the Archibald Prize.

Those of you who may not know, here in Australia we have a thing called the Archibald portrait prize. It was set up by Jules François Archibald. 14 January 1856 – 10 September 1919. And, it’s been running for almost 100 years. It is “regarded as the most important portrait prize in Australia”.

Previously, I’ve heard Archibald prizes described as “One of the worst in living memory” and “a Dog of an exhibition” and further comments that can’t be repeated. What will the 2014 Archibald prize be described as? None of the above I trust.

Most of this stuff is usually directed at a particular artist, or artwork, or the “ego of the artist” or the “character of the sitter” It’s amazing how when you don’t like a particular person that’s been painted for the Archibald, you can find so many problems with the quality of their portrait.

To date, I have seen three Archibald entries. All by female artists, and all worthy of winning the grand prize in my opinion. But who will win it this year? Usually, it’s a very well-known artist. One of the Catch-22’s of being a portrait painter in Australia is only well-known artists win the Archibald prize. So how do you get to be well-known if you don’t win the Archibald prize? I guess you just keep creating and submitting artworks, year-in-year-out until someone actually notices you.

Winning the Archibald prize is like winning the Miles Franklin award, or the Man Booker prize. It can send your career into the stratosphere and do wonders for your bank balance. Not just from the $75,000 first prize, but you will be able to add at least two zero’s to the sale of any previous or future artworks.

So best of luck to all who enter; I know I’ll be going again this year to put in my people’s choice award, and yes, I am open to bribes.


  1. Hmm, I think the artists that pretend to’ reluctantly do it’ as you say are putting on ‘the cool artist’ act. Artists of all levels in their careers are desperate for the Archibald, I’ll be honest, I am. I find that it’s pretty formulated event, for example if you want a good chance at the packing room prize, just paint that years Gold Logie winner and same goes for peoples choice. Oh yes and make sure it’s photo-realism. A gimmick never hurts your chances of getting into the finals either. Im guessing Luke Cornish’s portrait of Wil Anderson is going to get in this year because of the snazzy smart phone app he has attached to it. Does that have anything to do with the quality of the artwork? No, its just a clever marketing tool.

    • I know there was 800 entries this year, so by my calculations that would make up perhaps the majority of the front-line artists in Australia. It has been a part of the process for picking the winners for quite some time now, that the winning artwork will have something tricky, sensational, underlying or visually different about the work.

      Yes, I was expecting that thing of Wil Anderson to get in also. I have heard that there are a lot of front-line artist who didn’t get selected this year, so it should be very interesting to see the selection.

      Thanks for the comment.



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