John Richard Passmore was born into humble surroundings in Sydney in 1904 and died in 1984 in a Redfern home for destitute men. After briefly studying at the Julian Ashton School in Sydney and with the Depression hitting Australia hard, Passmore moved to England in 1933. His early work in England was greatly influenced by the paintings of Cézanne. “... There's two things about Cézanne - you can imitate him as much as you like and you can fall flat on your face ... what you have to do is study him as deeply as he studied himself" said Passmore.
Returning to Sydney in 1951, Passmore was eagerly sought out by aspiring young Sydney artists who admired his inspirational teaching, both at the Julian Ashton School and the National Art School. His teachings were based on Cézanne’s approach to painting and he impressed upon his students the importance of being a thinking artist. His students included John Olsen, Keith Looby and Colin Lanceley. Remarking on his teacher, Olsen said that Passmore wanted ‘to make us understand that art comes out of something more than the personal ego – you are not just expressing yourself, you are expressing something implied by the whole tradition. Passmore was concerned in his teaching and in his own work to emphasize the process of the picture one has in hand, rather than the end product.’
The mid 1950s saw Passmore move from his previous preoccupation with figurative motifs into completely abstract forms. The avant-garde exhibition 'Direction I' held at Macquarie Galleries in 1956 unleashed abstract impressionism onto the Sydney art scene. The exhibition which included works by his past students, John Olsen, William Rose, Eric Smith and Robert Klippel, marked Passmore’s dedication to 'the act of painting as a form of meditation in itself'. In 1959 he won the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship. Described as an enigmatic character, Passmore had a profound impact on the development of art in Sydney and is widely regarded as one of Australia’s foremost abstract painters. Depicting not merely the way things look or their basic structure, Passmore painted the impressions of his mind, combining visual fact with his perceptions of the relationships between vigorous slashes of paint and colour. The artist captured a psychic reality of nature.
In 1982 Passmore declared he would destroy his paintings as he would not be able to control them after he died. However his long time trusted friend Elinor Wrobel convinced him otherwise. Passmore left all his 270 paintings to her. Wrobel turned part of her family home, the National Trust-listed former Royal Domain Hotel, into a Passmore museum, displaying his paintings, his urn and ashes and a recreation of the artist's studio.
As part of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, the Art Gallery of NSW held the Australian Icons exhibition. John Passmore was among an impressive list of 20 Australian artists whose work was honoured.