Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo is enshrined in Australian art history as the teacher and champion of the Sydney Moderns, who included Grace Cossington Smith, Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin. He immigrated from Italy in 1897 to Sydney, having studied at the Royal Academy in Naples. Steered by an openness to all ideas, his studio quickly became the rival to Julian Ashton’s, whose pedagogical approach strictly advocated for Naturalism.
Dattilo-Rubbo led a life that at times, seems more fiction than fact. In 1916, he challenged a committee member to a duel when the Royal Art Society rejected a student’s work (the painting was hastily re-accepted). In 1940, when Italy entered the war, he was arrested as a possible subversive alien and briefly interned. Yet, just six years later, he was also commissioned to paint the posthumous portrait of former Prime Minister John Curtin.
Dattilo-Rubbo’s achievements are vast, but they are anchored by his talent. Interested in the societally misunderstood, his social-realist portraits render people with character and craftsmanship.
Charismatic contrarian, campaigner and co-founder of the Manly Art Gallery & Museum, Dattilo-Rubbo was an uncompromising champion of art. Posthumously, his student Roland Wakelin described him as “an inspiration to us all."