The faces do not fit the fashionable Edwardian model. Here, there is no flattery. They have strong, raw facial features that suggest honesty and character strength. Who were these people, and why did they stare so intently at you?
The answer is in the year 1904, which was two years before Ramsay’s death from tuberculosis. He was 28.
The composite of two of Ramsay’s sisters is an examination of the brother, whose sister told him that painting them white would shorten their lives. What about the red cheeks of one of them? The figure to the right is a mix of Madge, who is elegant, and Jessie. They both nursed Ramsay after he returned home from Paris. Jessie passed away four years later from the same disease. One of the symptoms is rosy cheeks.
The Ramsay exhibit provides a visual representation of the paths that led to this work.
The book begins with the arduous but dull teachings
Bernard Hall taught at Melbourne’s National Gallery School. Ramsay was a master at painting the backs of naked women, which his teacher Hall admired. However, he also recognized the limitations of Hall’s teaching methods.
He sought out the company of artists who had just returned from Paris and became friends with John Longstaff. This older would go on to be his lifelong mentor.
Self-portrait with a white jacket, c. 1901-1902. National Gallery of Victoria
Ramsay’s dad, who brought the family to Scotland from Scotland as a child, resented his career choice. The young artist received some financial assistance from his older brother, but he raised the majority of money himself to travel to Paris. His final illness was triggered by the cold and malnutrition that he suffered as a result.
Ramsay painted mostly his sisters, friends, and himself, with the exception of a few commissions. A limited repertoire has the advantage that it makes it easier to trace his artistic development in Paris.
He experimented with fashionable decorative symbolism, but for the most part, he stayed in the academic tradition of Velazquez. He delved into decorative symbolism, but he remained in the literary tradition of Velazquez.
A series of self portraits, all with subtle differences in tone, dominates the wall at NGA. The body is used as a component to create a composition.
Interior of an artist’s workshop (1901) National Gallery of Victoria
There is no figure on Interior of an Artist’s Studio, but this small, exquisite study of forms and shapes balanced in harmony gives a hint of the direction his art might have taken had illness not intervened.
There is also the intentionally angular Jeanne, which is a Whistler-inspired portrait of his concierge daughter. The red bow in her hair lifts the muted tones.
Australians in Paris were kind to each other. Ramsay was friends with George and Amy Lambert as well as Ambrose Patterson, J. S. MacDonald.
The most important patron was Nellie melba, a relative of Patterson by marriage. Ramsay had planned to paint a large portrait of Melba. The small study that is on display in the exhibition was a preparatory sketch. He traveled to London in order to receive the commission, but was diagnosed with tuberculosis just as his talent began being recognized.
Melba loaned him money so he could return to Australia and host a solo show at her Toorak house. She continued to support him by commissioning him to paint portraits of her father, who was ill, and her niece Nellie Patterson.
Ramsay wanted to leave behind a legacy. Ramsay’s largest painting, A study of the son of his doctor, was painted after he heard that painting could worsen his condition.
An equestrian portrait (1903). National Gallery of Victoria
In 1904, he painted two portraits of his sisters. This is not his last painting. Just months before his death, there was another incomplete self-portrait that focused on his solemn, serious face and looked at the structure of his bones.
Ramsay’s afterlife was probably luckier than his life. His family has worked for well over a hundred years to secure his place in Australian Art History. In addition to donating many pieces of art to public collections, they also endowed the Hugh Ramsay chair of Australian Art History.
This family’s devotion to his memory wouldn’t be as natural if he weren’t such an exceptional artist. The Ramsay family has done us all an immense service by keeping Ramsay’s memory alive in Australia’s history of art.