Brett Whiteley: How an Australian Artist sold art for record prices

This Brett Whiteley article discusses some reasons why the famous Australian artist, was such an international hit, consistently selling paintings for record prices.

It also warns against losing your life to your art.

Brett Whiteley was a famous Australian artist who died a sad death in 1992. He became a dominant painter in the years before his fatal overdose, managing to sell paintings for record prices in Australia.

“The cricket match” (1964) by Brett WHITELEY, Longueville, NSW, Australia. Private collection

Point 1. Whiteley was a highly talented artist and very street smart. Becoming well connected amongst international art circles.

Brett Whiteley was born in Sydney on 1939 and after leaving school at age 17 he spent time working in an advertising agency named Lintas. He was mostly a self taught artist, and contemporary of Fred Williams . Brett was heavily influenced by famous Australian artists like William Dobell, Lloyd Rees and Russell Drysdale.

Point 2. Brett understood a formal art degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a successful artist.

He once said that, “Art is an argument between what a thing looks like and what it means.” It seemed much of Whiteley’s life was an internal argument.

Point 3. The creative personality must be careful to maintain a healthy balanced mind to continue creating high quality art.

Unfortunately, Brett Whiteley suffered in this area. Losing control of his life. It was a continual struggle between two opposing forces, a creative drive, which built his life on art, but also a destructive drive, which finally claimed his life, after a heroin overdose in a lonely hotel in Wollongong, Australia.

Like many creative souls, Whiteley can remember distinctly when he knew being a painter was his destiny. He recalls one Sunday in a Presbyterian church he picked up a book on Vincent VanGogh and studied it intensely and found a love for art .

Point 4. Life changing occurences can profoundly alter a creative destiny at any given moment

He says, “I remember having this very, very powerful sense that my destiny was to completely give myself to painting – that I would be a painter and it was a remarkable moment of knowing that.”

Point 5. There is tremendous freedom , power and success in knowing what you love and are meant to be and do in life.

In another publication Brett Whiteley recalls, “about eleven I decided, and I quite deliberately decided, that I would go into an art which I didn’t have to answer to anyone”

‘Two miles to get the letters’ (1962–65) charcoal, tempera, oil and linseed oil, collage, on plywood 122 x 101.7 cm board; Collection Brett Whiteley Studio © Whiteley Estate

Brett was a highly sensitive personality, with a sharp artistic eye and wonderful sense of perspective and creative balance. However, as his personal life lost a healthy balance and he began to spin out of control due to a heroin addiction, the prices of his paintings soared. In a strange irony, it seemed his troubled and tormented personal life added credibility and depth of volume to his fine art.

Point 6. Trials and tribulations adds character and depth to an artists body of work.

In 1999 Whiteley’s painting called ‘The Jacaranda Tree’ was sold for $1,982,000, a record price for any contemporary Australian painter . Then again in 2007, he broke a local record with his painting ‘The Olgas for Ernest Giles’ which sold for $3.5 million. Another painting, depicting the Sydney Opera House, was sold for $2.8 million.

Point 7. Brett Whiteley continues to sell paintings for record breaking prices in Australia after his death.

These figures came as no surprise to many who knew Brett Whiteley, who always planned his exhibitions with shrewd calculation in order to gain maximum public impact. But underneath the marketing and publicity buzz, he was a hard working and dedicated painter.

Point 8. Brett didn’t limit himself artistically, but rather experimented and left his trademark style open to change.

In a most interesting observation by the internationally famous Australian art critic Robert Hughes, who wrote in The Bulletin magazine about Whiteley saying, “his outstanding act as a painter is the decision not to be original – not to narrow his style into the crippling uniqueness of a trademark, but to keep it open, and to preserve the flow of ideas between his art environment and his own experience”.

“Woman in bath” (1963) by Brett Whiteley oil, paper, graphite and tempera on plywood 183.1 x 218.7 cm board. Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 2000 © Whiteley Estate

But the mild cynicism underlying his statement is typical from Robert Hughes. I believe, like many others, that much of Whiteley’s art is highly original, especially his abstract images and the Bathroom series in which he painted his wife naked.

Point 9. Brett Whiteley was entirely original and eagerly pushed the boudaries in art and life.

For example, the picture above titled, “Two miles to get the letters” and “Woman in bath” present art lovers with wonderfully memorable contemporary abstract images of a thoughtful and original painter at the height of his creative career.

Do you have any thoughts on the paintings or life of the Australian artist Brett Whiteley. I would love to read your ideas, please post your thoughts in the comments box below.
If you’re interested in purchasing an original painting, or maybe you would like to commission Simon, please click here .

© Copyright Simon Brushfield – Brett Whiteley: How an Australian Artist sold art for record prices

About Simon Brushfield

Simon Brushfield is an artist whose work has been described as ‘poetic, enigmatic and dreamlike’ (Michael Berry, "Selected Contemporary Artists of Australia" book). His paintings have been exhibited and sold across Australia and internationally. If you enjoyed this post, sign up to Simons VIP list and have posts sent directly to your inbox.


  1. Hi Simon,

    Thanks for the article on Brett Whiteley. I don’t pretend to understand the mind of the contemporary painter as I my creativeness is not quite in that league. I do, however, find their stories fascinating.

    I doubt I need to worry about losing my life to my art, as my creative side is always at war with my practical side, ratther than my destructive side, but I do understand the emotional highs and lows that an art career can bring.

    Look forward to reading some more of your insights.

    Jenny Buchanan

    • Yes Jenny, a creative career in any industry can bring many different highs and lows. Creative stories are fascinating to me also because I can see aspects of myself in them. But not quite as severe as Brett Whiteley. Glad you like my insights. Thanks so much

  2. What a wonderful article. I believe for me that point number 6 best describes my art. I really didn’t start painting until I was in my 50′s. I can see the trials of the past reflected in my paintings of the present

  3. I thought I’d heard of most famous artists, but I had not come across Whiteley’s work before. Looking here, the paintings appear very exciting and original. So inspiring. John Bellany, a Scottish artist, currently showing at the Royal Academy in Edinburgh fought alcoholism for years and ended up surviving after a liver transplant in the 1980s. This battle with addiction appears, often, to be the tortuous route for many artists, but I’m guessing, really, that it is linked to depression, the sheer sensitivity of an artistic mind. Of course, it goes without saying, that this does not apply to ALL artists! I’m a bit manic about my work — going for days without sleep – and often not finding the right balance.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Lesley. Yes Brett Whiteley was a very exciting Aussie artist, but his path was a little wayward. I agree with you, many artists have a heightened sensitivity that sometimes leads to trouble. This was certainly the case for Brett and his addiction to heroine. Finding the right balance is a big challenge that never goes away – for everything in life.

  4. I’m still amazed that I first saw Brett Whiteley’s paintings in the ’70′s in a book “The Art of Australia” by Robert Hughes. The cover of the book had Brett Whiteley’s “Christie and Hectorina McLennan” painting on the cover. It was the unusualness of the painting that drew me to take up the book, bought here in Jamaica.

    I’m still fascinated by his work and your blog brought further insights into the life and thinking of this artist. Hope inspiration and appreciation of my abstract work can achieve success without the tragedy.
    Ian Fairweather also led an adventurous life and produced great work. Hope you’ll write about him also.

  5. ivan milton says:

    Hi Simon

    You might think that one’s seventies would be rather late in the day to acquire a new hero, but for some years Brett has been one of mine, even though I’m two years older now than he would be if he were still living.
    I was at Sydney Uni in the sixties and attended Julian Ashton’s, part-time, when Brett was a student there, though we never met. I remember that our venerable and very traditionalist old teacher Henry Gibbons didn’t know what to make of him. I also have a vague (and possibly false) memory of seeing one of Brett’s paintings left on an easel and being puzzled by it (I didn’t know what to make of abstract art any more than HG did). I think this was around the time that Brett won his scholarship.
    I never became an artist. From 1965-77 I lived on Norfolk Island and events in the art world fell off my radar. Snce then I have lived in England and I first became properly acquainted with Brett’s work when I visited Sydney a few years ago. I was blown away.
    I started painting again a few years ago. My work, unlike Brett’s, is quite conventional – his self-portrait made in 1955 will give you an idea of what it’s like. I would love to have had his boldness and imagination and his visionary qualities.
    It would feel wrong not to pay tribute here to Wendy, his lover, wife and muse. I’ve read that she too was a talented artist and was charmed, when I saw, online, an interview, during which she admitted that she didn’t have his drive for success. If that enabled her to be his muse I hope she found the role rewarding. Sometimes I think, with a twinge of reget, that if I’d had a muse I might have made it as an artist, but the truth of the matter is that probably, like her, I simply lacked the drive or maybe, in my case, the courage.



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