The Vatican Seen Past the River Tiber, Rome, Italy c.1960
mixed media on paper, mounted on board
33 x 51 cm
framed, signed lower right
Gift to David Chandler (1947-2012) from Beryl Whiteley
The Estate of David Chandler, Vickers & Hoad Antique & Fine Art Auctioneers, 14 October 2012, lot 374
Brett Whiteley discovered his passion for painting while he was still at high school in Bathurst. He left at 15, in 1956, and went to work as a self-taught commercial artist for an advertising agency in Sydney, while occasionally attending sketching clubs and life drawing classes at Julian Ashton Art School. Over the next three years he developed his artistic skills on his own, until leaving his advertising job in 1959 to create a body of work that he entered into the Italian Government Travelling Arts Scholarship. He submitted four paintings – Abstract Autumn, Dixon Street, July, and Around Bathurst – the painting that, won him the scholarship in 1960. Sir Russell Drysdale judged the scholarship. Whiteley was 20.
“He’ll Study In Italy – Big Art Win at First Try: 20-year-old Sydney painter, Brett Whiteley, has won a free travelling art scholarship to Italy.” The Daily Telegraph, October 20, 1959
Arriving in Naples in February 1960, Whiteley spent time in Rome and Florence, where he frequently visited the Uffizi Gallery to examine and revel in Renaissance artwork. On a brief visit to London to show his portfolio around, Whiteley was selected for a group exhibition by the McRoberts & Tunnard gallery. After his Italian scholarship finished in November 1960, Whiteley moved to London to seek opportunities for his new collection of paintings. Three were included in the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s ‘Survey of Recent Australian Painting’, where the Tate Gallery purchased his Untitled Red painting 1961 for their permanent collection. He soon had a solo exhibition at London’s Matthieson Gallery and showings throughout Europe.
“Brett is in the Tate: Brett Whiteley, 22-year old Australian painter, has accomplished a notable feat. He is probably the youngest painter ever to sell a work to London’s Tate gallery.” The Daily Telegraph, 1961
The Vatican Seen Past the River Tiber, Rome, Italy c.1960 is one of only a few early Whiteley’s paintings still in the wild. This painting is without doubt destined for an art museum; the work clearly illustrates a young painters sinewy path from capable juvenile; to scholarship winner onto the development of an artist’s first solid body of work, undertaken as it was to catch the art worlds eye. Due to the profound importance of travel in the development of Whiteley’s artistic voice and career, The Vatican Seen Past the River Tiber, Rome, Italy c.1960 represents his cross roads to greatness.
In addition to all of the above, The Vatican Seen Past the River Tiber, Rome, Italy c.1960 clearly illuminates the enormous impact that Lloyd Rees (1895- 1988) had on Whiteley. Their relationship began, explains Barry Pearce, the curator of More Affinities: Whiteley and Rees, “when the 14-year-old Whiteley (in 1953) went to see an exhibition of Rees landscapes at the Macquarie Galleries. Whiteley would later recall: “The thrill of discovery, walking into that little gallery and seeing for the first time landscapes, big and tiny, that looked to me as though they had every influence in the world in them.”
But it was another Rees painting, The Road to Berry 1947, which became the most important influence in Whiteley’s career. “This is the painting that turned Brett into believing he could become a painter,” says Pearce, the head curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW. “It became Brett’s talisman.”
As a teenager, working as a commercial artist for a Sydney advertising agency, Whiteley would repeatedly visit the Art Gallery of NSW to see The Road to Berry 1947. What attracted him, according to Pearce, was “the sense of arabesque … the tensile, serpentine line”. Whiteley admired the draughtsman ship that was evident in the work. Its no coincidence, Pearce says, “that same sense of drawing underlines nearly every landscape Brett ever did”.
The Vatican Seen Past the River Tiber, Rome, Italy c.1960 could easily be described as a drawing with a painting on top. The curvaceous meandering line of Whiteley’s view across The Tiber is the painting. Whiteley’s sprawling, sweeping, detailed and reworked lines clearly eco the more rigorously trained architectural hand of Lloyd Rees. With The Vatican Seen Past the River Tiber, Rome, Italy c.1960 we view a cross roads painting; a painting from a great artist on the rise and in early bloom; a painting clearly echoing the work of Whiteley’s good friend and great mentor, Lloyd Rees.