William Dobell was born in Cooks Hill, a working class neighbourhood of Newcastle. His father was a builder with six children. Dobell's artistic talents were evident early. In 1916, he was apprenticed to Newcastle architect, Wallace L. Porter and in 1924 he moved to Sydney as a draftsman. In 1925, he enrolled in evening art classes at Julian Ashton's school.
Dobell developed a very particular style as a painter, one that has become almost iconic, instantly recognisable as part of Australia's visual landscape. This painting is the 1943 billy boy held by the Australian War Memorial.
Dobell's fame made him uncomfortable.
In 1944, two rival artists took legal action against him and the NSW Art gallery over his 1943 Archibald Prize winning portrait of fellow painter Joshua Smith, arguing that it was a caricature. While they were unsuccessful, Dobell retreated to his sister's house at Wangi Wangi on Lake Macquarie near Newcastle.
Dobell's house and studio at Wangi Wangi has been preserved as a museum.