Sidney Nolan
_First-class marksman_ 1946
AGNSW collection

Sidney Nolan

First-class marksman

1946

The dark figure in the centre of this painting is the famous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly (1854-1880). He is recognisable by his distinctive homemade metal armour and helmet. You may have seen his likeness in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Kelly's story has many resonances with that of Song Jiang and the gang of outlaws in the 14th-century Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan. Although a criminal, Kelly became a folk hero - in part, because of his impoverished Irish background and his defiance of authorities and police, who had a reputation for corruption.

This painting refers to Kelly and his gang practising their shooting while hiding out in Victoria’s Wombat Ranges. It is one of a seminal series produced by Nolan in 1946-47 depicting Kelly’s life and deeds. Nolan's fascination with Kelly developed from stories told by his grandfather, a trooper who had hunted down the fugitive bushranger in 1880.

Nolan often commented that the Kelly series was as much about himself as it was about the Irish renegade, and may relate to his own experience as an outlaw of sorts, after he deserted the army during World War Two. The Australian landscape was another inspiration, as it was for so much of his work.

One of Australia's most significant painters, Nolan was knighted in 1981. He travelled widely during his life, including several visits to China, which resulted in a series of Chinese landscape paintings.

Ripolin enamel on hardboard, 90.2 x 121.2 cm, purchased with funds provided by the Gleeson O'Keefe Foundation 2010 © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust/Bridgeman Art Library 62.2010