It is only in myth that the truth about any country can be found.
In June 1949 Sidney Nolan travelled with his wife Cynthia and daughter Jinx to Central Australia. This trip would have a profound impact on Nolan’s paintings and would provide the opportunity and impetus for him to celebrate Daisy May Bates, a well-known Australian icon at the time.
Daisy Bates was born in Ireland in 1863 and migrated to Australia in 1884. An eccentric character, she created her own mythologies, linking herself to the aristocracy and marrying at least two men bigamously, one of whom, Breaker Morant, would loom large in the Australian consciousness. Daisy Bates, however, was most notable for her work with Aborigines, which saw her moving to Western and South Australia, eventually setting up camp at Ooldea in 1918.
For sixteen years Bates lived in Ooldea on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, an isolated area even though the railway was inching through the desert. In her late seventies, Bates was still leading a peripatetic life. However, by 1949 she had moved to Adelaide and was living in a nursing home; she died in 1951 at the age of 88.
Painted in Sydney in 1950, Nolan’s placement of Bates at the centre of an arid, dominating landscape with its big sky is also a portrait of determination. Appearing almost as an apparition, the figure of Bates stands erect, though her diminutive size emphasises an indomitable spirit. Bates’s daintily shod feet are not firmly grounded in the land, an indication that she is not of the land.
Nolan does not need to identify a subject’s features to convey the sense of his portrait; here Bates’s face is obscured and unrecognisable. It is instead her long Edwardian skirt, crisp white shirt, white gloves, parasol and veil that signify something of Daisy Bates’s character; her strict resolve to adhere to an outdated and impractical costume for her chosen way of life.
Nolan’s work cements the image of Daisy Bates in the Australian psyche and, while immortalising her, he continues to explore the idea of Europeans as fragile aliens in the Australian landscape. It is Nolan’s portrait of the continent.
 N Underhill (ed), Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in his own words, Viking Press, Melbourne, 2007, p 236.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010