In 2000, in association with the Olympics in Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales
staged a special display of its Australian collections under the title, Australian Icons. Central to the display was the work of Sidney Nolan, whom many consider to be the most influential painter in the history of 20th century Australian art. The selected Nolan works from the collection demonstrated that Nolan was inadequately represented in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Thus the Gallery embarked on analysing, editing and enhancing that representation and identified a number of key works as potential acquisitions. First-class marksman was one of these.
With the support of Art Gallery Society and the generous funding of the Nelson Meers Foundation, the Gallery has, over the last decade, greatly enhanced its Nolan representation.
The acquisition of this painting for Sydney fulfils a long-held ambition to bring into the collection one of the iconic images of Nolan. On behalf of the Gallery and the people of New South Wales, a huge thank you to the Trustees of the Gleeson OKeefe Foundation for making this landmark acquisition possible. It is an acquisition that James Gleeson would have undoubtedly approved. Edmund Capon.
Barry Pearce, Head curator Australian art comments: There are two iconic images that stand out amongst the many paintings and drawings Sidney Nolan made on the theme of the notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly between 1946 and 1947. The first is Ned Kelly, now in the National Gallery of Australia as part of the famous ensemble given by Sunday Reed in 1977. The second is First-class marksman. Both painted in 1946, they have a common significance.
Both show the isolated figure of Kelly, in that black, hard-edged armour which is Nolans most marvellous pictorial invention, its flat shapes slabbed incongruously against a landscape of great aerial delicacy, evoking perfectly the alienated status of its human content. In one singularly laid-bare conception we confront Nolan, Kelly and the landscape. But there is something also profoundly different between these two pictures.
The Canberra work depicts Kelly in full view on his red horse, moving away from us towards his destiny on the distant horizon. First-class marksman however, made just a few months later, on 12 December 1946, sees the black suit cut off by the bottom of the composition, at once destroying our detachment and making us part of the outlaws space. We have been invited to accompany him on his journey to a realm commanded by the direction in which his gun is pointing.
Indeed the difference between First-class marksman from the rest of the series becomes more evident when we realise this was the only one not painted on the dining table at Heide, but at the house of the Russian expatriate artist Danila
Vassilieff at Warrandyte, where Nolan was caretaker for two months. Its informal style of rendering the landscape in this new context swift, transparent, hallucinatory became in Nolans hands yet another miraculous invention, bearing fruit just two years later in Sydney when he painted an amazing series based on outback Queensland.'
Nolans First-class marksman will find its home forever on the walls of the Art Gallery of New South Wales alongside such signature works, among others, Pretty polly mine 1948, purchased in 1949 and Nolans first representation by a major state art museum, Central Australia 1950, acquired 2004 with funds from the Nelson Meers Foundation, and Hare in trap 1946, acquired in 2007 with funds from the Nelson Meers Foundation and Margaret Olley.