1. Home
  2. News and insights
  3. Press releases
  4. Israeli artist wins BP Portrait Award 2015

Israeli artist wins BP Portrait Award 2015 for picture of friend and step-daughter defiant in the face of Biblical inspired tragedy

Release date:
16 June 2015
-First Israeli winner of £30,000 prize for allegorical scene from a tale of sacrifice

On Tuesday 16 June 2015 the winner of the BP Portrait Award 2015 was announced at the National Portrait Gallery. The prestigious first prize - in the 26th year of BP’s sponsorship of the competition - was won by 35-year-old Israeli artist Matan Ben-Cnaan, for Annabelle and Guy, a striking allegorical portrait of the artist’s friend and step-daughter as if contemplating their tragic fate in the blinding sunlight of Israel’s Jezreel Valley.


The judges were impressed by the highly charged and unsettling portrait in which the artist chose to depict his sitters as though they were facing tragedy in an echo of the Biblical story of Jephthah. In this story an Israelite judge vowed on entering battle that should he win, he will sacrifice the first thing that greets him upon his home-coming, believing it to be a dog. However, on his return, it is his daughter who rushes out in welcome. Realising the tragic mistake he has made, he upholds his vow and sacrifices his child.


Matan Ben-Cnaan was presented with £30,000 and a commission, at the National Portrait Gallery Trustees’ discretion, worth £5,000. The portrait can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery from Thursday 18 June when the BP Portrait Award 2015 exhibition opens to the public.


The second prize of £10,000 went to Leicester-based artist Michael Gaskell, 51, for Eliza, a portrait depicting his niece Eliza, who agreed to sit for him in early 2014 at the age of 14, having first sat for a portrait for her uncle when she was a very small child. 

The third prize of £8,000 went to Spanish artist Borja Buces Renard, 36, for My Mother and My Brother on a Sunday Evening, a portrait of his mother Paloma and his brother Jaime in the living room of his parents’ house. His father who had been ill for some time passed away a few weeks after the painting was finished.


The BP Young Artist Award of £7,000 for the work of a selected entrant aged between 18 and 30 has been won by New York based artist Eleana Antonaki for J. The awards were presented by historian Simon Schama who was one of the judges.  

First Prize: Matan Ben-Cnaan (23.04.1980) for Annabelle and Guy (1200 x 1300mm, oil on board)

Matan Ben-Cnaan is an artist from the north of Israel, who studied fine arts at Haifa University. His First Prize-winning portrait is partly inspired by the biblical story of Jephthah, an Israelite judge who vowed to God on entering battle with the Ammonites, that should he emerge victorious from war, he will sacrifice the first thing that greets him upon his home-coming, probably believing that it would be a dog. However, on his return, it is his daughter who rushes out in welcome. In horror, he realises the tragic mistake he has made, but upholds his vow and sacrifices his child. At the centre of the portrait, located close to the artist’s home in Israel’s Jezreel Valley, is his friend Guy and step-daughter Annabelle. ‘Unified by the blinding light, all the objects in the picture become one,’ says Ben-Cnaan. ‘The tension imminent in the moment of realisation of the horrible price one must pay is reflected in the composition. The rough wall and rugged gravel echo the grittiness and grief in Guy's (Jephthah's) character, whilst the fig tree, casting an ominous shadow, presages Annabelle’s fate. Her strong posture reflects her own resolve and her role, in both the story and in Guy’s life, in carrying his burdens and misfortune. Being just a child, Annabelle attempts to process her tragic fate’.


Judges’ comments - Annabelle and Guy: ‘The judges were struck by the engaging filmic narrative of this neo-Realist painting and the unnerving atmosphere that surrounds it. The painting’s setting and the treatment of intense light and deep shadow was much admired.’

Second Prize: Michael Gaskell (18.08.1963) for Eliza (370 x 270mm, acrylic on board)

Selected for BP Portrait Award exhibitions five times and second prize winner on three occasions, Michael Gaskell is a Leicester-based artist. He was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in 2012 to paint a portrait of climate scientist Sir James Lovelock and other commissions include a painting used on the poster for Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. 


His Second Prize winning portrait is of his niece Eliza, who agreed to sit for him in early 2014 at the age of 14. Eliza first sat for a portrait for her uncle when she was a very small child, and that painting is yet to be completed.  ‘I hope this painting conveys a sense of Eliza’s growing confidence as she develops into a woman’, says Gaskell, ‘but retains some of the self-consciousness which was also present at the time.’

Eliza by Michael Gaskell

He says the primary influence on the appearance of the portrait was the work of the fifteenth-century painter Hans Memling. A year before he started the portrait of Eliza, Gaskell had been commissioned to make a painting of an American collector who had a particular interest in the Early Netherlandish artist and had at some point owned work by him. In preparation for that picture Gaskell set about studying portraits by Memling and believes his work informs aspects of his portrait of Eliza such as the lighting and the composition.


Judges’ comments - Eliza: ‘The judges agreed that this is a highly accomplished portrait, revealing the influence of Vermeer and Dutch seventeenth-century paintings while also a having a seemingly modern, timeless quality.’

Third Prize: Borja Buces Renard (08.09.1978) for My Mother and My Brother on a Sunday Evening (1500 x 2000mm, oil on canvas)

Working and living between Madrid, Spain and Florida, USA, Borja Buces Renard has painted his mother Paloma and his brother Jaime in the living room of his parents’ house on a typical Sunday when the family would gather and talk. However this Third Prize-winning portrait has an added poignancy as his father, who had not been able to join them for such Sunday gatherings for some time due to illness, passed away a few weeks after the painting was finished.  For the past four years his father had been suffering from a progressively debilitating illness. 


‘Making this weekly event slowly disappear, I wanted to portray this emotion in my painting’, he says, ‘with the image of my father missing and that difficult time for all of us, especially for my mum whom had dedicated herself to taking care of him. Our living room, in which we all spent many evenings together was the place that would best capture that moment. I had painted my mother, father and brother many other times on that same couch, so I was pretty sure about how I wanted to use the light and colour’.


The painting, with its powerfully dissolving forms on the edges of the canvas, is dedicated both to the artist’s father, Jose Antonio, and to his mother Paloma.


Judges’ comments - My Mother and My Brother on a Sunday Evening: ‘The judges were drawn to the intensity of the relationship depicted between this couple, which was assumed to be that of mother and son. There was much admiration for the loose, unfinished quality of the painting.’

BP Young Artist Award: Eleana Antonaki (03.05.1989) for J. (Oil on canvas, 1450 x 1450mm)

New York based artist Eleana Antonaki, 25, is the winner of the BP Young Artist Award for a portrait of her friend and emerging artist Julie Laenkhom whose practice is installation-based and deals with the idea of the “object as a living thing.” She was fascinated by the connection Julie develops with her sculptural objects and the almost ritualistic and obsessive way she treats objects of “low value” like plastic bags and balls of clay. In the portrait Julie is shown meditating with her sculptural objects on her working table. Eleana wanted to compose a very austere environment that reveals little about the space in which the sitter exists. She wanted to place her sitter in a precarious position where the narration takes place somewhere outside of the image either before or after the depicted moment. ‘Using painting as my medium,’ Eleana says, ‘I am constantly aware of the history the medium comes with and the dialogue it is generating with its huge tradition. In my portrait, I am referring to the archetypical image of a sitting figure and at the same time to construct an image that exists in a dialogue with the traditional painting space’.


Judges’ comments – J.: ‘The judges were intrigued by the enigmatic, futuristic narrative of this painting, which was quite unlike any other in the competition. They felt that this portrait successfully explores the isolation of contemporary life.’



The winner of the BP Travel Award 2015, an annual prize to enable artists to work in a different environment on a project related to portraiture, was also announced last night. The prize of £6,000 is open to applications from any of the BP Portrait Award-exhibited artists.


This year the BP Travel Award has been awarded to French artist Magali Cazo for her proposal to travel to a community of bronze-smelters in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, West Africa. There she will live with and represent the artists, apprentices and labourers whose lives revolve around the foundry. Magali was inspired by the vivid colours of the landscape, the architecture and the clothes on a previous visit to Bobo-Dioulasso and will use the sketches made on that trip to develop a series of portraits on wood. Magali’s resulting work will be displayed in the BP Portrait Award 2016 exhibition.


The work of BP Travel Award 2014 winner Edward Sutcliffe, based in London and Dubai, is on display at this year’s exhibition. Edward won for his proposal to document the Compton Cricket Club which was formed as an initiative to help encourage and empower the disaffected youth of an area of Los Angeles synonymous with poverty and crime. By spending as much time with the team as possible (either on the pitch or in their everyday lives) and seeing the impact cricket has had on people from some of the city’s toughest streets, Sutcliffe drew and painted the players, producing portraits that show a fusion of two very different cultures and how the game of cricket with its ethos of fair play and honestly has been embraced by this community. 


The BP Portrait Award 2015 received 2,748 entries from 92 countries, (up from 2,377 entries from 71 countries in 2014).  Judged anonymously, 55 portraits have been selected for the exhibition (National Portrait Gallery, London, 18 June-20 September 2015, Admission free). In 2014 the BP Portrait Award received 281,717 visitors.


The Portrait Award, now in its 36th year at the National Portrait Gallery and 26th year of sponsorship by BP, is a highly successful annual event aimed at encouraging artists to focus upon, and develop, the theme of painted portraiture within their work. The BP Portrait Award, one of the world’s most prestigious art competitions, has a First Prize of £30,000, making it one of the largest for any global arts competition.


Ms Pim Baxter, Chair of Judges and Deputy Director, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘The judges were extremely impressed by the range and style of work entered in this year’s BP Portrait Award, which saw a record number not only of entries but also of international artists, and our thanks go to all of them for taking part and sharing their work with us. We were all drawn to the winning portrait by Matan Ben-Cnaan at a very early stage, the quality of light is extraordinary, together with the intensity of the gaze of the subjects. All three of our shortlisted artists and the BP Young Artist demonstrate the amazing talent of those who are selected for the exhibition each year, many congratulations to them all and renewed thanks to BP for 26 years of invaluable support.’


Ms Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP, says: ‘Congratulations go not just to the prize-winning artists for their beautiful and striking portraits but to all those selected for display in BP Portrait Award 2015. I hope visitors will come to the Gallery to experience the range and quality of these paintings drawn from an unprecedented 92 countries in the competition’s biggest-ever entry and our first year of digital submissions.’


For further press information please contact: Neil Evans, Media Relations Manager, National Portrait Gallery, London, Tel 020 7 312 2452 (not for publication) Email: nevans@npg.org.uk

Notes to editors


The BP Portrait Award 2015 competition was judged from original paintings by: Pim Baxter, Deputy Director (Acting Director at the time of judging), National Portrait Gallery, London (Chair); Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London; Kim Mawhinney, Head of Art, National Museums Northern Ireland; Peter Monkman, Artist and First-Prize winner of BP Portrait Award 2009; Simon Schama, Historian; and Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts & Culture, BP.


The BP Travel Award 2015 was judged by Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator, National Portrait Gallery, Peter Monkman, artist and First-Prize winner of BP Portrait Award 2009, and Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP.


The BP Travel Award 2014 was judged by Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator, National Portrait Gallery, Susanne du Toit, artist and BP Portrait Award First Prize winner 2013, and Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP.


TOUR: The exhibition will tour to Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (10 Oct 2015 – 28 Feb 2016) Ulster Museum, Belfast (11 Mar –12 Jun 2016.) 


PUBLICATION: A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition and features an essay by Neil Gaiman. The BP Portrait Award 2015 is published 18 June 2015, and includes over 55 colour illustrations, price £9.99 (pbk).


FAMILY TRAIL: The National Portrait Gallery will be working with award-winning children's picture book illustrator Yasmeen Ismail to produce drawings for a free family trail and a number of special exhibition labels that will offer a range of creative activities throughout the duration of the BP Portrait Award 2015.  yasmeenismail.co.uk


BP PORTRAIT AWARD: NEXT GENERATION is an exciting project offering free opportunities for 14-19 year-olds to creatively engage with painted portraiture through the BP Portrait Award. For the sixth year, young people will be able to connect with past BP Portrait Award-winning artists, meet other young people interested in portraiture and create their own portraits through a series of programmes including Taster Sessions, Drop-in Drawing, three-day Summer Schools, the third after-hours Young People’s Private View, an onsite display showcasing the project, and youth-generated digital content including video interviews with artists and participants. BP Portrait Award: Next Generation has so far engaged over one thousand young people, onsite and regionally. npg.org.uk/bpnextgeneration      


BP PORTRAIT AWARD 2015 – OVERALL FIGURES Total entrants 2,748 (UK Entries 1,390, International Entries 1,358)


BP PORTRAIT AWARD 2015 – EXHIBITION FIGURES (55 selected from total entry): England (21), Australia (1), Belgium (1), Canada (1), Czech Republic (1), France (2), Ireland (3), Israel (2), Italy (1), Netherlands (1), Northern Ireland (1), Romania (1), Scotland (1), Spain (8), Turkey (1), United States (9)


BP support for UK Arts & Culture:  In the UK, BP is a major supporter of the arts with a programme that spans over 35 years. BP’s investment in long term partnerships with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and Tate Britain  represent one of the most significant long-term corporate investments in UK arts and culture bp.com