Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo: a charismatic teacher’s work in focus

An exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW pays homage to the legendary Australian art teacher, mentor and artist Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo (1870 – 1955). He taught many of the Sydney Moderns, including Grace Cossington Smith, Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin. His influence on Australian art history can’t be underestimated and includes the founding of the Manly Art Gallery.

I was most surprised to see Dattilo-Rubbo’s social realist painting ‘Poverty makes Strange Bedfellows’, 1905, listed as ‘collection of the AGNSW’. I remembered viewing the work at a Deutscher + Hackett auction in April 2009 with an estimate of $ 55,000 – $ 80,000 and an impressive provenance, including Mr McLeod of the Bulletin, 1906, and the Holmes à Court Collection. Despite this, the painting failed to sell on the night.

D+H art specialist Merryn Schriever confirmed that the AGNSW contacted them after the auction. Subsequently, they purchased the work with the Edward Stinson Bequest Fund in 2009. Schriever mentioned that this had happened before with public galleries: the Queensland Art Gallery purchased George Washington Lambert’s ‘Self portrait with Ambrose Patterson, Amy Lambert and Hugh Ramsey’, 1903, also after auction in August 2009 where it had been offered with an estimate of $ 300,000 to $ 400,000. It was bought in 2009 with funds from Philip Bacon through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation.

However, these occurrences seem to be isolated. Geoffrey Smith, Chairman of Sotheby’s, couldn’t recall a recent instance of a public institution buying after auction. He felt that museums were usually able to raise funds beforehand and bid on the night.

Tim Abdallah, National Head of Art at Menzies, concurred saying that the time before an auction was usually plenty also for institutions to prepare a bid – however, the intention to bid would of course not be made known beforehand.

Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo lived a long life and was a prolific painter. There is great quality in his early portraits and impressionistic landscapes. Anything before 1920 is worth looking out for in the auction room, and small oils can often be secured for $ 1,000 or less. Later works feel less inspired and can come across as rather sentimental.

The exhibition runs until 14 August, focussing on Dattilo-Rubbo’s portraiture, and includes a small display of sketch books and memorabilia – an intimate tribute to a charismatic teacher and artist. See also the AGNSW website and www.antoniodattilorubbo.com.au

Article originally published in the Australian Art Sales Digest

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Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, Betty, 1917
Collection of the Manly Art Gallery and Museum

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