Peter Purves Smith
'The diplomats' 1939
Gift of Lady Casey 1979

Living in Paris in 1938, Peter Purves Smith was intensely aware of the rise of Nazism in Germany and the impending threat of war. The diplomats, one of Purves Smith's most overtly political works, was painted in direct response to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's much criticised policy of appeasement to the Nazis with the Munich Agreement of September 1938. Based loosely on a newspaper photograph of Chamberlain with the British Foreign Secretary and the French Prime Minister, Purves Smith presents them as comical and ineffectual figures. The stage-like setting and looming buildings create a sense of foreboding, reflecting the artist's concerns for the future.

Born in Melbourne in 1912, Purves Smith studied at the Grosvenor School in London. From 1937 he studied with George Bell in Melbourne, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Russell Drysdale. In 1940 Purves Smith enlisted in the British Army and served in Africa and Burma. On his return to Australia in 1946 he contracted tuberculosis, which was the cause of his death in 1949 at the age of only 37.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

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Australian Art

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The National Gallery of Australia's collection of Australian art reflects its unique national responsibility to present the story of visual art in Australia.

The collection includes works of consistently high quality and outstanding aesthetic merit…


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The National Gallery of Australia's collection of Australian art reflects its unique national responsibility to present the story of visual art in Australia.

The collection includes works of consistently high quality and outstanding aesthetic merit -- works by artists from all Australian states and territories and by Australian artists working overseas, as well as works by artists living for a time in Australia. The wide-ranging collection of the work of Indigenous artists from all regions and urban areas of Australia is covered under Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

The Gallery's permanent displays of Australian art are presented in an integrated and broadly chronological arrangement of works from the earliest colonial period to the present day: paintings and sculptures, works on paper, photographs and other photomedia, decorative arts and design. Because of New Zealand's geographical and historical proximity to Australia, works by New Zealand artists are collected selectively and often displayed alongside Australian works.

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