Her work ‘Self-portrait after George Lambert’ made her just the tenth woman to win Australia’s most prestigious prize for portraiture.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on May 11, 2018

Yvette Coppersmith had been a finalist in the Archibald Prize five times. Her entry this year is a self-portrait styled as a homage to one of her artistic inspirations, George Lambert, who won the Archibald Prize in 1927.

The artist said she was overwhelmed to be named this year’s winner.

“Hearing of the win this morning, my mind was scrambling to integrate the surreal news about something that’s been 20 years in the making. I’m still trying to fathom it!”

Her portrait of former President of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs was among the most acclaimed finalists last year.

Coppersmith completed a Bachelor of Fine Art (Painting) from the Victorian College of the Arts and has been in demand for her experimental-leaning portraits.

The 37-year-old will receive A$100,000 for the award.

While the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (worth A$150,000) has become Australia’s richest prize for portraiture, the Archibald Prize still holds an unparalleled place in the nation’s consciousness. It drew 146,000 visitors last year.

The prize is held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and dates back to 1921. Its initial remit was to honour a portrait, “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.”

The victory means Coppersmith joins iconic Australian painters such as Adam Cullen, Margaret Olley and Brett Whiteley as winners.

Coppersmith’s self-portrait was part of a pronounced trend this year of artists painting themselves. Twenty-one of the 58 finalists this year painted some variation of a self-portrait.

Interestingly, Coppersmith’s decision to paint herself only came after her first choice of subject, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern, declined her invitation to sit for a portrait.

Coppersmith’s decision to paint herself only came after her first choice of subject, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern, declined her invitation to sit for a portrait.

AGNSW director Michael Brand said Coppersmith had been building towards this accolade.

“Yvette is a highly talented young artist who brings a deep and historical understanding of the tradition of contemporary art practice. 

“Her previous paintings as a finalist have been diverse and shown her talent as an artist.”

Vincent Namatjira was Highly Commended for his painting ‘Studio self-portrait’. It shows the artist wearing a KISS t-shirt and sitting in his studio in front of an unfinished portrait of Chuck Berry.

“Painting is an ongoing battle,” Namatjira said.

“It’s me and the canvas, the paint and the brush. You never stop learning.”

The Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald opined yesterday that Namatjira would be a worthy winner.

“If I were the judge I’d happily give Namatjira the prize, and not simply because it would be a first-ever win for an Indigenous painter,” McDonald wrote.

Other prizes
Last week, Jamie Preisz’s painting of singer Jimmy Barnes won the Packing Room Prize. The prize is voted on by packing room staff, with the Head Packer Brett Cuthbertson holding a majority vote.

The 28-year-old Preisz said he was inspired by an interview where Barnes spoke openly about his struggles with depression and a suicide attempt he had made.

“To me, he was fighting against the stigma of mental health issues by speaking so publicly about his own struggles, especially to generations of men who don’t feel that having emotional intelligence is a masculine quality.”

The winners of the Sir John Sulman Prize and the Wynne Prize were also announced today.

Kaylene Whiskey picked up the Sir John Sulman Prize for her work ‘Kaylene TV’. The painting depicts entertainers Cher and Dolly Parton. Whiskey described it as “about two strong kungkas (women).”

The prize is awarded annually for the best genre painting or mural.

Yukultji Napangati won the Wynne Prize, which goes to the best oil or watercolour landscape painting or the best figure sculpture. Her work ‘Untitled’ relates to Yunara, a region in Western Australia west of Kiwirrkura, where she lives.

“During ancestral times, a group of women camped at this site,” Napangati said.

“While at Yunala, the women camped beside the rock hole, digging for the edible roots of the bush banana or silky pear vine (Marsdenia australis), also known as yunala.”

Finalists for the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes are all exhibited at the AGNSW until 9 September.