Australian art critic and writer Robert Hughes, author of The Fatal Shore and Shock of the New, has died in New York. He was 74.

Hughes died Monday at a hospital in the Bronx after a long illness, according to a statement from his wife, Doris. He was critically injured in a 1999 car accident and never fully recovered.


Robert Hughes in a 2006 interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. The influential Australian art critic died Monday. (CBC)

Hughes, an Australian, worked in London before moving to New York in 1970 where he made his name as an art critic for Time magazine. He wrote for the magazine until 2000.

"They wanted somebody who could actually write about art in a way that wasn't — but here I sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet — in a way that was not condescending and … was intelligible to people who were not art experts," he said in a 2006 interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Hughes’s writing was humorous and often irreverent, but his judgments could be merciless with modern artists who he felt were posturing.

"You can't be a critic and not have a harsh side, you know, because otherwise you turn out to be a sort of Pollyanna … you know, become this total arsehole who wanders around the world thinking every sprig of clover is a rose," he said.

The Fatal Shore

In 1987 he came to even greater fame with the international best-seller The Fatal Shore, which examined the harsh life of convicts during the early European settlement of Australia, a subject that has often been taboo among Australians.

The book was a love letter to his homeland, telling Australians they should wear "the convict taint" as a badge of pride, rather than trying to gloss over their unsavoury origins. The Fatal Shore won both the WH Smith Literary Award and the Duff Cooper Prize.

In 2000 he explored his relationship with modern Australia in a television series titled Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard hailed Hughes as a frank critic and writer, and an esteemed historian who made significant contributions to tracing and telling Australia's colonial history.

''Few people … can have been so completely cosmopolitan, and completely Australian as Robert Hughes,'' she said. "His was, in every sense, a great Australian voice."

Shock of the New on TV

Hughes was tremendously influential for his BBC-PBS TV series on modern art, Shock of the New, which explained art from the Impressionists to the the modern by looking at the major themes that run through art.

Born in Sydney, Australia, on July 28, 1938, Hughes was educated at the Roman Catholic St Ignatius College and Sydney University, where Germaine Greer was a fellow student. Hughes failed to complete his degree in architecture, dropping out to paint, mainly abstracts.

He earned a living drawing political cartoons and drifted into a job critiquing art for a Sydney newspaper. In the 1960s, he travelled extensively throughout Europe and spent time in London studying medieval and Renaissance painting, sculpture and architecture.

Early books

His first two books were The Art of Australia: A Critical Survey (1966) and Heaven and Hell in Western Art (1970), a book that brought him to the attention of Time magazine.

In the mid-1970s, he was drawn to television and made a 10-part series in London on The Art of Australia and lengthy documentaries for the BBC on Rubens, Caravaggio and Bernini. Hughes' blunt, no-nonsense style worked well on TV and he became a public intellectual.

His other books include histories of Barcelona and Rome, a collection of his Time writings Nothing if Not Critical and the memoir, Things I Didn't Know.

He is survived by his second wife, Doris Downes Hughes, two brothers and a sister and niece and two stepsons. His son Danton Hughes tragically predeceased him.

With files from Australian Broadcasting Corp.