Although Russell Drysdale is predominantly remembered for his paintings of the isolated, rural Australian outback, portraits comprised a significant component of his body of work. His greatest paintings such as Maria, Drover's Wife and Joe are in fact a blend of portraiture and landscape, for by his astute choice of model and the way in which he related the sitter to their surroundings, the artist was able to capture the essence of lonely bush towns and, by extension, the spirit of rural Australia.
While the girl in this painting is similar to Drysdale's daughter, as she appears in Portrait of Lynne 1948, Lynne was unlikely to have been the model for this work. Lynne Drysdale was born in 1938 and would have been considerably older than the young girl portrayed in this painting, which has been dated to the mid 1950s.
Children often conform to a type in Drysdale's work and other paintings that feature a similar girlish figure include Country Child circa 1948. Portrait of a woman 1946 (known formerly as The Countrywoman) also shows a young woman with the same red hair styled into a bob, a hairstyle that frequently recurs in Drysdale's depictions of women and young girls.
The green background against which the child is placed is another familiar motif of Drysdale's work that appears in other portraits such as Malay Boy, Broome 1959. The vivid aqua green is an unusual choice but one which Drysdale used deliberately to intensify other colours. In paintings such as Billy Grace at Cattle Creek 1966, the green base was overlaid with orange to evoke the fiery light of the harsh Australian sun. In Head of a Girl the background colour provides a vivid contrast with the red of the child's hair and the warm colour of her blouse.
The girl in this work is characteristic of the figures in Drysdale's paintings who rarely directly engage with the viewer. Her gaze is directed beyond us, imparting a serious, slighly wistful, quality that, combined with her slight hesitant figure, creates an impression of fragility. In a contemporary review of the 1945 - 46 painting Two Children, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Clive Turnbull wrote of the artist's ability to "... capture the pathos of those shy children of the outback which Drysdale has come to interpret so well." (C Turnbull, "Two Years of Australian Art", Herald, Melbourne, 31 July 1946, p.4)
The 1950s were a time of tremendous creativity and professional success for Drysdale. His first exhibition in London was held in 1950 at Leicester Galleries and was a resounding success, with the Tate Gallery acquiring War Memorial. With this exhibition, Drysdale set a precedent of international acclaim for contemporary Australian painting that other artists such as Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan would later follow. In 1953 the Macquarie Galleries held a sell-out exhibition of Drysdale's Cape York Peninsula paintings, which was dominated by paintings of Aboriginals. These works were a watershed in the history of Australian painting and are today considered to be amongst the most important works in the evolution of Australian visual culture.
In 1953 Drysdale was also one of the main exhibitors in Twelve Australian Artists, which was the first official exhibition of contemporary Australian painting to be sent to the United Kingdom. The following year Drysdale, together with Donald Friend and Sidney Nolan, was chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. The decade culminated in Drysdale's retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which was held in 1960.
Head of a Girl, which includes many of Drysdale's signature motifs, is a charming and intimate work by one of Australia's finest painters, executed during one of the greatest periods of his career.