Making Art History | The Incredible Life and Work of Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo

There are those that lead and those that follow. Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo - the artist behind ‘Coquette’, whose captivating portraits are only rivalled by his captivating life, embodies the former.



Antonio DATTILO RUBBO - 'Coquette'


The story of Dattilo-Rubbo begins in 1897, when the young Italian spontaneously left for Sydney. Here, having studied at the Royal Academy in Naples, Dattilo-Rubbo began teaching classes and even established his own atelier. Led by an openness to all ideas, his studio fast become the rival to Julian Ashton, whose didactic approach strictly advocated for Naturalism.          

In 1913, Dattilo-Rubbo’s former student Norah Simpson, returned from Europe with colour reproductions of Post-Impressionist works. Never before seen in Australia, these works were a radical departure from what was considered ‘good’ art. Yet, rather than dismiss them, Dattilo-Rubbo shared them with his atelier. Inspired, artists including Grace Cossington-SmithRoy de Maistre and Frank Hinder began experimenting under their mentor’s eye, producing the first Modernist paintings in Australia.

Dattilo-Rubbo’s achievements maybe vast, but they are anchored by his talent. Interested in the societally misunderstood, his social-realist portraits render people with character and craftsmanship. In Coquette (meaning ‘flirt’), a sensuous figure playfully peeks from behind a fan. Provoking more questions than she answers, Dattilo-Rubbo’s portraits transfix the viewer who is left wondering who the subject is.

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 - needless to say, 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 in 1907


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."

Since Dattilo-Rubbo did not produce many paintings - no doubt because he was so busy teaching and donated 125 of his paintings to the Manly Art Gallery, Coquette is a rare and delightful find. For those passionate about art, Australian history or in need of a good story, this work offers bountiful pleasures.

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