‘I finished my painting of a footballer this morning and called Jim [the gardener at Heide] to have a look at it. He said it looked quite real, almost as if you were there, so it at least passed the critical eye of a specialist.’
Sidney Nolan, 26 August 1946
Many of Sidney Nolan’s paintings of the 1940s reflect life in St Kilda – the baths, Luna Park and Catani Gardens. By 1946 Nolan had become increasingly attracted to Australia’s rich history of convicts, explorers and bushrangers, including Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills, which revealed his careful and deliberate search for distinctly Australian imagery. Footballer was painted in the middle of Nolan’s first Ned Kelly series and shares visual similarities with it; the black shorts of the iconic Australian rules fullback are akin to Ned Kelly’s helmet.
Nolan originally exhibited Footballer at the Contemporary Art Society, Melbourne, in 1946. It was also exhibited in the 1960s and 1970s as Full back, St Kilda, leading to speculation that the subject could be Keith Miller, the famous St Kilda fullback. However, Nolan’s deliberate choice of a generic title and non-specific football club colours reinforces the universal appeal of the image, which celebrates the special significance that sport plays in shaping Australian identity.