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Russell Drysdale

Half caste woman, 1960


Catalogue number: 1

oil on canvas

91.50 x 71.00

signed and dated ‘Russell Drysdale 1960’ l.r.


Acquired from the artist by William Dargie for the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, c 1961;
Art Bank Collection, till 1992;
Private Collection, Melbourne, since then


Government House, Canberra, in the late 60's (personal memory of Sue Hewitt, who was then secretary to the Governor General Lord Casey);
Australian Embassy, Paris, in the 1980's;
Modern Australian Paintings, Charles Nodrum Gallery, May, 1992 (uncatalogued);
Russell Drysdale 1912-1981, retrospective exhibition, NGV & travelling to AGNSW, QAG, AGNT, AGSA and TMAG, December 1997 - November 1998

Literature & references:

Lou Klepac, Russell Drysdale, Bay Books, 1983, illus pl 152;
Lou Klepac, Russell Drysdale, Bay Books, 1983, see p 152 for the (shortened) extract of the letter to Haefliger, and plates 69, 71, 97, 106, 108, 119 and 167, for works quoted below;
Menzies, Australian & International Fine Art, Sydney, 11 Oct 2017, Lot 49, for the Half caste woman of 1961.


Drysdale painted the subject twice. The first – Half caste woman, in 1960 (front cover) and the second, with a different sitter and the same title, the following year. With a similar pose in both cases, the later painting is darker in tone and depicts an older, darker skinned woman of a markedly more anxious demeanour. The earlier work, by contrast, using the red background occasionally employed in traditional portraits to give a less formal and sombre touch than is possible with the usual umber ground, presents a woman seemingly free of angst or self-doubt, and emanating a sense of quiet but firm composure. In racially divided societies, the state of the half caste has always been fraught (currently the very term is uncomfortable to use) for whilst they have the benefit of knowing and belonging to both worlds, the fact that they are not full members of either often results in them being rejected by both. This young woman gives the impression of being both aware of, and yet at ease with, these contradictory positions. If this reading is right, then one can only assume that the artist became intimately aware of the inner nature of his sitter, which brings up a question not often (if ever) asked: Why is it that, with one exception, all his Aboriginal subjects are nameless? (His paintings of white subjects do sometimes have descriptive titles - The drover’s wife, The listening boy, etc. - but most are named personally - Old Larsen, George Ross, Joe, etc.). The only hypothesis I can offer is that, in maintaining their anonymity, he acknowledged the fact of their (then) officially inferior status. In the human world, being named is the first step to enter into society. To have no name is to have no place; but to have a name is not enough and many names (at least in the English speaking world) derive from what we do (Smith, Baker, Taylor, etc.) where we are from (Field, Hill, Dale, etc.) or a social position (Officer, Bailey, Page, etc.) or a family position (Johnson, Davison, Wilson, etc.) In each case, it’s about contingent rather than essential properties. Keeping the subject anonymous forces the viewer to see the person not as an individual but as a member of the group (The Splitters, The Lost Child, The Dead Landlord, The Half caste). On this score, this painting makes an active and affirmative statement: This woman seems to straddle both her worlds with enviable poise and equanimity. Going back a few years, in 1957 Drysdale went to England for an extended stay, and, in a letter to his good friend Paul Haefliger (a fellow migrant, like himself) probably written in December that year, he makes an interesting lexical move: he extends the term ‘half caste’ out of its literal field of biology into the figurative field of culture and nationality. You know you’ll never be Swiss again as I could never be an Englishman, despite my birth in that most English of watering places, Bognor, nor my preparatory school training …. You may be able to say “I once was Swiss’ …. Both of us curiously have fled to Europe for emotional reasons … [which] can provide a background within which we can ease ourselves, and use painting as a magic shoehorn …. The trouble is we’re not young enough … I know I can never look at Europe like a European and as a painter never really be other than a halfcaste …. An extraordinary statement from one who many see as that most quintessentially Australian artist – and maybe one that goes some way to explaining whatever insight he may have had into a corner of the racial issues of his time and place. A final note. In 1965 Drysdale painted an oil of an aboriginal woman standing beside a white man with his arm around the shoulder of a dark skinned little girl – title: The family. CN

View artwork in Exhibition

Exhibition Catalogue

Half caste woman

Russell Drysdale


oil on canvas, 91.50 x 71.00

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Fred Williams


oil on canvas, 165.00 x 90.50

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John Peter Russell


oil on panel, 27.00 x 21.50

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c. 1890

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La Favorita

Tom Roberts

c. 1889

oil on cedar panel (cigar-box lid), 23.60 x 14.50

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Roy de Maistre


oil on board, 78.00 x 59.00


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The Icon of the Saviour (Image Not-Made-By-Hands)

Leonard Brown


egg tempera, 24 kt. gold leaf & gesso on beech wood panel, 61.00 x 46.00

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Bathers, Morning

John Passmore

c. 1951 - 1953

oil on board, 51.00 x 56.00

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Godfrey Miller

c. 1950 - 1954

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Professor Sir Mark Oliphant, KBE FRS

Arthur Murch


oil on board, 92.00 x 76.00


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Hooded Woman

Herbert McClintock


oil on board, 87.00 x 61.00

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James Wigley

c. 1950

oil on canvas laid on board, 45.50 x 35.50


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Portrait of Bryan

Danila Vassilieff


Portrait of Bryan, 40.50 x 35.50


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The Maths Teacher

Edwin Tanner


oil on canvas, 101.00 x 64.00

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At the Opera

William Dobell

c. 1960

oil on board, 15.50 x 15.50


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Charles Blackman


oil on paper on board, 61.00 x 73.50

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Sidney Nolan

c. 1980 - 1990

crayon on card, 122.00 x 152.00

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Anthony Underhill


oil on canvas, 152.00 x 121.00

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Portrait of Mira, the Artist's daughter

Stacha Halpern

c. 1961 - 1962

oil on canvas, 73.00 x 54.00


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Two Figures

Clive Stephen


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The Oracle of the Sphinx

Donald Laycock


oil on canvas on board, 183.00 x 122.00

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Richard Larter


enamel (with silver) on board, 182.00 x 121.00

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Oasis of Love

Stewart MacFarlane

1987 - 1988

oil on canvas, 183.00 x 183.00

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Spring Tumble II (Mug Lair)

Colin Lanceley


oil and collage on board, 56.00 x 38.50

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Little Man

Mike Brown

c. 1965

acrylic on board, 91.50 x 61.00

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Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.