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Antonio Salvatore Dattilo Rubbo (1870–1955)

by Carmel Oakley

This article was published:

Antonio Salvatore Dattilo Rubbo (1870-1955), artist, was born on 21 June 1870 at Naples, Italy, son of Luigi Raffaele Dattilo, grain merchant, and Raffaela Rubbo. Dattilo died during his son's infancy: until he was 8 Antonio was looked after by a great-aunt at Pontecorvo. At 14 he won a prize for drawing, which enabled him to study draughtsmanship in Rome where he gained a certificate in 1888. While serving as a conscript in the Italian army for the next four years, he managed to visit the major Italian galleries and paint portraits of his fellow-soldiers. From 1893 at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Naples, he had a classical training based on drawing the antique, and also studied under Domenico Morelli and Filippo Palizzi, leaders of the liberal Neapolitan art movement. Morelli's eclecticism and method of sketching in the streets of Naples were an enduring influence on Rubbo's work. In 1896 he was awarded the academy's diploma of professor of drawing in public institutions.

Next year, after briefly trying to interest himself in the family business, Rubbo left for Sydney, and upon disembarking on 13 November was befriended by Eirene Mort. In return for accommodation and English lessons with the Mort family, Rubbo conducted an art class at their Strathfield home. In 1898 he began a studio class in Hunter Street, moving next year to Rowe Street, where he established his atelier. He offered life classes and his school became the main rival to Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School. From 1898 Rubbo taught at well-known Sydney schools—St Joseph's College, Kambala and Scots College and later at Kincoppal and Rose Bay Sacred Heart convents, Newington College and Homebush Grammar School. He was a council-member of the (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales from 1900 and from 1907 to 1934 taught at its school, where he became the longest-serving and most popular instructor. Throughout his long teaching career he vigorously campaigned for the inclusion of art (and a more professional approach to its teaching) in the school systems.

The purchase in 1899 by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales of 'The Veteran'—an individualized portrait of an old soldier in the style of nineteenth-century Neapolitan naturalism—had enabled Rubbo to set up his studio flat in Rowe Street, which was near the Bulletin office and a meeting place for writers and artists; he quickly became a popular member of Sydney's Bohemian community and its clubs. That year G. Nerli used him as the model for his painting, 'Bohème'. Rubbo was naturalized in 1903, styling his surname Dattillo-Rubbo. On 10 December next year at Paddington he married a former student, Mildred Russell Jobson, who bore him two sons.

In 1906 Rubbo made his only return visit to Europe, visiting galleries, exhibitions and art schools in England, France and Italy. Back in Sydney his classes, while retaining their basic academic approach, became noted for their openness to modern ideas. The return from Europe in 1913 of his student Norah Simpson, with first-hand experience of modernist ideas, further strengthened this development. As a result the first modern paintings in Australia emerged from Rubbo's classes, notably those of Grace Cossington Smith, Roland Wakelin and Roi de Maistre. Rubbo's own work was much less affected by modernism. An eclectic, who selected both stylistic and thematic elements from the work of the nineteenth-century Realists, Naturalists, Impressionists and, occasionally, Post-Impressionists, he found greatest critical acceptance for his genre paintings, which frequently depicted destitute old men. His most experimental works are his landscapes and figure-in-landscape paintings (1910-30). With their high colour key and broken-brush technique they are more akin to the work of the French Impressionists than to their Australian equivalents. As he grew older Rubbo returned to a more academic approach, and even publicly condemned the modern art he had earlier encouraged.

Moving his family to Manly in 1916, Rubbo was appointed to the War Memorials Advisory Board in 1919. In 1924 he transferred his atelier to larger, more modern premises in Bligh Street and started the Atelier Club. That year he helped to found Manly Art Gallery and Historical Collection (to which he donated over one hundred of his own works) and the Dante Alighieri Art and Literary Society. He maintained his links with Italy and in 1932 was appointed cavaliere of the Order of the Crown of Italy. Two years later he left the Royal Art Society and joined the rival and more forward-looking Society of Artists (life-member, 1954).

From the mid-1930s Rubbo saw himself and his work passed over by critics and institutions, although he was commissioned in 1947 to paint the posthumous portrait of John Curtin for Parliament House, Canberra. In his later years he made sizeable donations of his work to galleries, institutions and appeals. In 1940, when Italy entered the war, he was arrested as a possibly subversive alien and briefly interned. Next year he handed over the management of his classes to Frances Ellis, a former student and teacher at the atelier.

Small in stature, with curly black hair and beautiful hands, 'Signor' Rubbo was remembered by the artist Margaret Coen: 'Darkly handsome, his brown eyes flashing, and sporting a black goatee beard, a long scarf flung carelessly round his neck, he always wore a dark green Borsalino hat pulled low to one side'. He had great wit and enormous vitality and was an uncompromising, yet fair, critic of his students' work.

Rubbo, who had suffered from angina for many years, died in his sleep at his Mosman home on 1 June 1955 and was cremated. He was survived by his elder son Sydney (1911-1969), professor of bacteriology at the University of Melbourne. Rubbo's portrait by Evelyn Chapman and a self-portrait are in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • M. M. Pearson, The Tales of Rowe Street (Syd, 1947)
  • M. Stewart, Autobiography of My Mother (Melb, 1985)
  • Art and Architecture, July-Aug, 1905
  • Red Funnel, 3, 1906
  • Art and Australia, Mar 1967
  • C. Oakley, A Neapolitan in Sydney: Antonio Dattilo Rubbo and His Art 1870-1955 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1982)
  • tapes of interviews with Sydney Rubbo, 1969 (Art Gallery of New South Wales Library)
  • Rubbo papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carmel Oakley, 'Rubbo, Antonio Salvatore Dattilo (1870–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Dattilo-Rubbo, Antonio Salvatore

21 June, 1870
Naples, Italy


1 June, 1955 (aged 84)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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