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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Breaking the News” by John Longstaff

John Longstaff - Breaking the News

“Breaking the News” by John Longstaff

“Breaking the News” by John Longstaff depicts the scene inside a miner’s cottage. It shows an old miner breaking the unbearable news to a young woman, informing her husband’s death in a mining accident. The woman holds an infant in her arms, and two other miners are at the doorway, carrying the body of the husband on a stretcher.

“Breaking the News” became etched in the popular imagination, and by the 1890s was “known by reproduction in every mining township in Australia.” Painted when Longstaff was still an art student, it won him a traveling scholarship in 1887. At the time, it was described as “a vivid and accurate presentment of a familiar incident in Australian life.” According to a biographer, Longstaff’s childhood memory of a mining fatality was the direct inspiration for “Breaking the News”:

“following the tragic cortège from mine-head to the cottage door, he had heard the stricken cry of the young wife at the sight of the stretcher-bearers’ burden.”

Writer and poet Henry Lawson, after viewing “Breaking the News,” wrote glowingly about the painting’s emotional and social impact in an 1899 essay. In turn, J. F. Archibald, the then owner of this painting, commissioned Longstaff to paint a portrait of Lawson. Archibald greatly admired the picture, prompting him to set up a bequest for the Archibald Prize, now Australia’s most prestigious prize for portraiture. Longstaff went on to win the Archibald five times.

John Longstaff

John Longstaff Longstaff was appointed an official war artist with the Australian Infantry Force in the First World War. He was later knighted for his services in 1928, the first Australian artist to have had this honor.

Mine Disasters

  • The worst mining disaster in Australia history occurred in 1902 at Mount Kembla mine as a result of an explosion that claimed the lives of 96 miners.
  • At the date of this painting, in 1887, 81 miners were killed in the gas explosion in the Bulli Mine. The loss of life left 150 children fatherless, and around 50 women were suddenly widows.
  • Globally, Mining kills and injures more than 15,000 miners are killed every year.
  • In Bolivia, the average miner in the tin mines of Potosí will live only 35 to 40 years.
  • One of the worst mining disasters in American history was the Fraterville mine disaster in 1902, which killed 216 miners. Fraterville is located in western Anderson County, Tennessee.
  • The Monongah Mining Disaster was the worst mining accident in American history. Three hundred sixty-two workers were killed in an underground explosion in 1907 in Monongah, West Virginia.

Archibald Prize

The Archibald Prize was the first major prize for portraiture in Australian art. It was first awarded in 1921 after the receipt of a bequest from J. F. Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin, who died in 1919. It awards the best portrait, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date fixed for sending in the pictures.

The Archibald Prize has been awarded annually since 1921, and since July 2015, the prize has been AUD $100,000.

Breaking the News

  • Title:                      Breaking the News
  • Artist:                    John Longstaff
  • Year:                      1887
  • Place of Origin:     Australia
  • Material:                Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:          109.7 × 152.8 cm (43.2 × 60.2 in)
  • Museum:              Art Gallery of Western Australia

John Longstaff

  • Artist:           John Longstaff
  • Born:           1861 – Clunes, Victoria, Australia
  • Died             1941 (aged 60) – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  • Major Paintings:
    • Breaking the News, 1887, Art Gallery of Western Australia
    • Gippsland, Sunday night, February 20th, 1898, 1898, National Gallery of Victoria
    • Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper’s Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861, 1907, National Gallery of Victoria

Explore the Art Gallery of Western Australia

A Tour of Australian Museums

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Australian Proverbs and Quotes

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“Art, of course, is a way of thinking, a way of mining reality.”
– John Gardner

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Photo Credit: By John Longstaff, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons By John Longstaff, Public Domain, Link

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