In 1946 and 1947, Sidney Nolan embarked on his first series of images based on the life and death of the legendary Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. The core of this first series is now held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, but a small number of portraits of Kelly and his gang, including Head, have remained in private hands.
Nolan's images of Kelly and his gang were thoroughly grounded in historical fact: the artist closely studied Kelly's trial transcript, as well as the report of the 1881 Royal Commission established to investigate the group's activities. This knowledge was reinforced by the artist's possession of carte-de-visite photographs of Kelly, taken the day before he was hanged in November 1880.
In particular, a head and shoulders portrait photograph inspired Nolan's familiar representation of Kelly's heavy beard and wide-set eyes with their penetrating gaze. In these portrait images, it was not the archetypal iron-clad bushranger that captured the artist's imagination, but the Kelly who agitated for political reform and the just treatment of Irish Australians by their British leaders. "He was interested in the Kelly who stamped his authority on his world - the rebel reformer - but he was likewise interested in the human Kelly - the man who was at the mercy of a destiny which seemed to have a life of its own." (A. Sayers, The Ned Kelly Paintings: Nolan at Heide 1946-47, Melbourne, 1997, p.22)
The representation of his subject in Head presages the later emphasis Nolan was to place on Kelly's vulnerability when he later revisited the theme during the mid-1960s. Unbound by the strictures of traditional portraiture in both his manner of presenting the subject and in his working method, Nolan here shows early indication of his attraction to the subject's humanity over his role as an Australian legend. This is expressed further through Nolan's painting, as the face is painted first, giving precedence over the background and pink collarless shirt, which, in a reversal of the usual approach, have been added later.
This Head portrait is closely related to a number of other portraits of Kelly and his gang, namely Colonial Head, 1947 (collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales) and a range of charcoal studies Nolan made of the same subject, including Untitled (Bushranger Head), 1947 (reproduced in J. Buckley, Sidney Nolan Works on Paper Retrospective, exh. cat., Nolan Gallery, Lanyon, Canberra, 1980, cat. 76). Nolan's analytical approach to the subject has been attributed in part to his own fragile emotional state during this period: "the atmosphere at Heide where Nolan had been living with John and Sunday Reed for some years had, by all accounts, now become highly claustrophobic emotionally, a situation which was to lead to Nolan's fraught departure.". (Nolan's Nolans: A Reputation Reassessed, exh. cat.,Thomas Agnew and Sons Ltd, London, 1997, cat. no. 32).