So much has been written about William Dobell’s controversial portrait of his friend and fellow artist Joshua Smith. It was awarded the prestigious Archibald Prize in 1943, but branded by many as a caricature due to Smith’s exaggerated features. A law suit followed, brought by two unsuccessful competition entrants. The case failed and the award stood, but it was a traumatic experience for both Dobell and Smith.

Portrait of Joshua Smith by William Dobell.
JOSHUA SMITH (Sydney Morning Herald)

Of course, controversy creates intense interest.

Over 140,000 people viewed the painting during an extended season at the gallery.

The following year a new Dobell furore (or should I say Fϋhrer?😎) arose;

From The Sun, September 14 1944, by Kenneth Slessor.


Children under five and people with weak hearts will be able to visit this year’s Royal Art Society show without the slightest qualm. There is no danger of concussion to the feelings (or brain) in this sedate exhibition…….Only one incident could agitate the eyebrows of the oldest member. The Royal Art Society has made a joke for the first time in 50 years.

Propped upon the platform there is a rather childish parody of Dobell’s Archibald prize-winner, “Joshua Smith” Hitler’s head has been substituted for Joshua Smith’s, a Nazi brazzard is on the arm, and a skull is gnawing the fingers. Otherwise the pose is the same.

Hitler; in a parody of Dobell's painting of Joshua Smith.

Amid strong, criticism, Howard Ashton, President of the Society, defended the showing of the painting, insisting that it was an insult only to Adolf Hitler, not to Dobell or Joshua Smith. The painting was signed simply, “Nemesis’ and Ashton refused to reveal the identity of the artist, stating only that, ‘The artist had written a letter saying the painting was inspired by a “What would you do with Hitler?” competition for readers of “The Sunday Sun.”

Naturally, a war weary public flocked to the exhibition to view the strange depiction of public enemy number one, but they were disappointed;

From The Sun, September 16 1944;

“Nemesis” Has Vanished

Visitors to the Royal Art Society’s exhibition today looked in vain for the controversial “Nemesis”, a portrait of Hitler done in “Dobelesque” manner.

Those in search of novelty, however, gathered in front of Les Turnbull’s picture entitled “At the Exhibition”. The canvas showed a number of surrealist and other modern school pictures on a wall, before which a crowd was gathered.

One man was standing on his head to see if he could get the right perspective, another was being led away, apparently ill by what he saw, while other spectators looked astonished, amused or bewildered. The fact that some of the pictures in his canvas had a Dobell slant – one was entitled “Alive Landlady” (Dobell showed “The Dead Landlord” in his last exhibition) aroused much comment.

Dobell's work The Dead Landlord.

I have searched in vain for Turnbull’s At the Exhibition. The mind boggles at what Alive Landlady looked like. I wonder what became of it?

The newspaper photo of Les Turnbull below was taken the same year, 1944. He is presenting a far more conventional painting to the U.S. Nurses’ Leave Club.


And what was the story behind the disappearance of ‘Nemesis’, aka Mr Hitler? Well, just as Howard Ashton was about to call in the police the mystery was solved. It had been removed by committee member Mr J.H.R. ‘Roy’ Rousel. Mrs Rousel explained that her artist husband had removed it late on the night before the official opening. She said he then took to his bed with influenza, unaware that his act of censorship had created such a stir.

The picture Nemesis reappeared at the exhibition today. Officials explained that the committeeman who removed it was under a misapprehension that its exhibition had not been authorised. However, the Hanging Committee had passed the picture. It was admitted that a division of opinion appeared to exist and to clear this up a special meeting of the committee is to be held. (Newcastle Sun Monday September 18 1944)

By the way, the winner of the Archibald Prize in 1944 was….JOSHUA SMITH! 😍 Smith died in 1995. During an interview given in 1991 he said he had felt cursed by Dobell’s portrait his entire life and that it’s notoriety completely overshadowed his own career.

The following image shows the central panel of Brett Whiteley’s self portrait which won the 1978 Archibald Prize. Sorry Joshua, but there you were again.

For more on William Dobell and the Archibald Prize controversy, CLICK HERE.

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