I loved this painting so much I bought a print in the art gallery gift shop. I have learnt many things about First-class marksman; that it was 1 of 27 in the Ned Kelly collection painted by Nolan in 1946-1947. This was the only painting that Nolan did not paint at the Heidelberg home where he completed the rest of the collection. I was astounded to discover that First-class marksman is the most expensive Australian painting ever sold, bought for a mind-blowing $5.4 million by the NSW Art Gallery in 2010! That is why it sits alone while the rest of the collection lives at the National Gallery in Canberra.
But these are just facts. I have been staring at this painting blue tacked on my wall for 5 days wondering why I like it so much. It is childlike and cartoonish, absurd and unrefined, and lacking the exquisite attention to detail we saw in the paintings of Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. I have been asking myself what makes this painting so appealing and so valuable?
The painting depicts Ned Kelly casually practising his shooting skills at his hideout in the Wombat Ranges. Looking closely at this painting I see that the brush strokes are rather rudimentary, the trees rough splotches of many shades of green, an ochre track leading to a distant mountain range of shades of brown, purple and blue. Kelly’s fingers are crudely distorted around his rifle and a fingernail hangs strangely off his trigger finger. Ned Kelly’s back is to us but through his armour we see 2 eyeballs looking to the right. Is he looking backwards or forwards, or perhaps both? Maybe this represents the pivotal moment of no going back, before the siege at Glenrowan, the calm before the storm.
Whereas other paintings in Nolan’s collection are quite dark and violent, First-class marksman shows Kelly as a hero in the glorious Australian bush on a sunny day, where even his rifle is a brilliant blue and gold with the sunlight reflected off it. There are a lot of contrasts in this painting; Kelly’s iconic jet black square armour stands out against the sublime colours of the Australian bush. He is both heroic and vulnerable, brave though scared. It is a confronting image yet also serene and peaceful. The painting’s appeal lies in its quintessential Australian take on an infamous gang of outlaws who helped to shape our nation. Nolan’s Ned Kelly has become nearly as legendary as the legend of Ned Kelly himself.
“I can see how the works link us to the past with our memories of the landscape and the oddity of the Kelly outbreak. We are the only tribe that can think of Kelly as part of our culture and history. So you see I take a sort of tribal view of our landscape and culture. I paint Kelly as part of Australia’s culture and mine.” Sir Sidney Nolan, 1984.