Conversation with Margaret Olley , 2003
oil on linen
152.5 x 274.5 cm
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales, The Archibald Prize 2003 Finalist
  • Tweed Regional Gallery, NSW – ‘Portraits: Margaret Olley

Australian artist Margaret Olley is probably one of the most painted faces
in the history of Australian art. William Dobell’s 1949 Archibald Prize-winning painting of her remains one of the most popular portraits in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. When Danelle Bergstrom painted artist John Coburn for the Portia Geach Memorial Award in 2002, Margaret Olley was there at the opening and asked to meet her. “She was candid and rather wonderful about the painting ­she can be quite up-front,” recalls Bergstrom. “The painting consisted of two large paintings of John and a blank canvas in the middle and one of the first things she said to me was… what¹s with the blank canvas?¹ We discussed the work and I appreciated her comments and frankness.”

Towards the end of last year she rang to ask if Olley would sit for
her. She agreed and they began work in January.  “She was very generous with her time,” says Bergstrom. “I approached the portrait on Margaret with an open mind. We spent time at her house where we chatted. I created a number of drawings, sketches and took a few snaps, to assist in the search and concept for the painting. I always develop a number of canvases to explore the subject, working them up as a group.

Margaret is a woman with a very strong personality and a very expressive face. I decided I wanted to focus on her face, which I find adorable. As I got closer and closer, she¹d joke about it. ­She has a wonderful sense of humour. Using three images in one work became important in expressing time and movement in the final concept. Our conversations together.  The first panel is more distant, a warm, friendly greeting. The second is about dialogue and exchanging ideas. The third expresses an aspect of her cheeky personality. This appeared after becoming more at ease with each other and the initial formality had gone.

After a sitting with Margaret at the studio and discussing the developing work, I felt the need to explore the concept further. Shortly after, I commenced four more canvases. Being short of canvases and time I had to use the blank canvas from the John Coburn portrait. There are eight portraits of her in all and am still working on them. It’s been a challenge, and she could see me struggling, but painting is always a struggle. I try to make every painting I do better than the last one or I feel I haven’t achieved enough.”

Artist Statement