Heath Ledger portrait wins Australian art prize

SYDNEY Thu May 8, 2008 3:55am EDT

'Heat', an oil on canvas by artist Vincent Fantauzzo, is seen in this image provided by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney May 8, 2008. The portrait of a brooding Heath Ledger, painted shortly before the Hollywood actor died in January, was voted the most popular painting in Australia's top art prize for portraiture on Thursday. REUTERS/Art Gallery New South Wales/Handout

'Heat', an oil on canvas by artist Vincent Fantauzzo, is seen in this image provided by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney May 8, 2008. The portrait of a brooding Heath Ledger, painted shortly before the Hollywood actor died in January, was voted the most popular painting in Australia's top art prize for portraiture on Thursday.

Credit: Reuters/Art Gallery New South Wales/Handout

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A portrait of a brooding Heath Ledger, painted shortly before the Australian actor died in January, was voted the most popular painting in Australia's top art prize for portraiture on Thursday.

Ledger, 28, best known for his role as a conflicted gay cowboy in the 2005 movie "Brokeback Mountain," died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in New York on January 22.

Artist Vincent Fantauzzo, 29, had been friends with Ledger for many years and painted his work in Ledger's hometown of Perth late last year.

"I wanted it to be dealing with self, your own consciousness and your thoughts," said Fantauzzo.

The painting features a bare-chested Ledger against a black background, looking straight out of the canvas with two other images of the actor at the sides whispering into his ears.

Fantauzzo's painting was a finalist in the 2008 Archibald Prize, Australia's top prize for portraiture, but he missed out on the top award, which went to a self-portrait of an artist with her two children.

But the Art Gallery of New South Wales on Thursday announced that the Ledger portrait had won the people's choice award, which is decided by votes from people who view the Gallery's Archibald exhibition.

More than 32,000 people voted, and the painting drew record crowds to the exhibition.

Fantauzzo has refused offers to buy the painting, and said he had spoken to Ledger's family, who decided the painting would be donated to the New South Wales Gallery in Sydney.

Ledger starred in 18 movies in Australia and Hollywood. He will appear as the Joker in the latest "Batman" movie, "Dark Knight," set for release in July.

Reuters/Nielsen

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