Part 1: Important Fine Art
26 November 2014


(1939 - 1992)

oil and mixed media on canvas and Perspex

71.5 x 76.5 cm

signed, dated and inscribed lower right: oil sketch of Sydney Harbour in the Rain brett whiteley Oct / 27/76

$350,000 - 450,000
Sold for $504,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 37 - 26 November 2014, Melbourne

Australian Galleries, Melbourne
Private collection, Melbourne, acquired from the above in 1977


Fine Paintings, Tapestries & Sculpture, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 19 April – 3 May 1977, cat. 73 (as'Harbour')

Catalogue text

Exuding a sense of equilibrium and lyricism, Sydney Harbour in the Rain, 1976 encapsulates well the sensuous Lavender Bay scenes for which Whiteley is so widely acclaimed and admired. Considered the crowning achievement of his career, the series signalled a marked departure from art as a reforming medium - from politics, social consciousness and a Rimbaudian vision of life as a contest between good and evil - towards tableaux strongly inspired by Matisse and his aspirations for '... an art of balance, purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be something like a good armchair in which to relax from physical fatigue.'1

Early in 1974, a large and successful retrospective exhibition of his drawings at Bonython Gallery had enabled Brett and his wife Wendy to purchase the Lavender Bay house they had been renting, thus signifying Whiteley's emotional bonding with Australia - 'a centring, as it were, of his universe'.2 As Wendy later recalled, 'in a sense Lavender Bay was Brett's return to paradise, having come from a very anxious situation' - and it is paradise. He said some quite tender things at the time, like 'I'm at home at last' ...3 From this stable domestic base, and quite literally his living room window, Whiteley now turned to the Harbour for inspiration, with the brilliant 'optical ecstasy' of Lavender Bay - burnt orange in the midday sun, sparkling sapphire blue at twilight or drenched pearl-grey in the rain (as featured here)-providing his muse.

Seduced by this new love, this enchanting siren of Sydney Harbour, Whiteley would continue over the next two decades to explore further the theme of Lavender Bay, capturing her many moods through sumptuous interiors, harbour views and still-lifes. The result was indeed his most celebrated body of work for within three years of embarking upon the series, Whiteley had won three of Australia's most coveted art awards, all with Lavender Bay paintings notably executed in or around the same year as the present oil sketch "the Archibald Prize for Self-Portrait in the Studio, 1976; the Sulman Prize for Interior with Time Past, 1976; and the Wynne Prize for The Jacaranda Tree, 1977.

A stunning example from this pivotal period within the artist's oeuvre, Sydney Harbour in the Rain poignantly evokes the poetry of the bay with its subdued palette of grey and cream; sensuality of line and electrifying highlights of ultramarine which Whiteley famously observed'hit my nervous system in such an exciting way'.4 As such, the composition bears strong stylistic affinities with Lavender Bay in the Rain, 1974, and Grey Harbour, c1978, and, despite obvious differences in mood and weather, is closely related to bolder interpretations such as the iconic Big Orange (Sunset), 1974 and The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour), 1977. Beyond any formal concerns, however, Whiteley's abiding preoccupation with such panoramas lay in immortalising the beauty of his subject; as he mused in the introduction to the catalogue accompanying his groundbreaking show at Australian Galleries in 1974, these paintings- begin from the premise of recording the glimpse seen at the highest point of affection - points of optical ecstasy, where romanticism and optimism overshadow any form of menace or foreboding'.5

1. Matisse cited in McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1992, p. 181
2. Wendy Whiteley cited in Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson, Sydney, 1995, p. 35
3. Ibid., p. 484. Brett Whiteley quoted in Interview with Phillip Adams, radio 2UE, Sydney, September 19865. Brett Whiteley quoted in McGrath, op. cit., p. 185