With no knowledge of the subject, one could assume that Madame Hartl is the portrait of an opera singer caught backstage before or after a performance. This is not the case. It is a staged portrait of Madame Ruby Hartl as she had appeared in fancy dress at the Chelsea Arts Club Annual Costume Ball at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden on 18 February 1909. Roberts and his wife had also attended, with other artist friends. During the Edwardian period many artists and socialites were drawn to such spectacle and it is not surprising that Roberts asked Madame Hartl to pose for him in her costume as ‘La Tornabuoni’, the oft-painted wife of the fifteenth-century Florentine arts patron Giovanni Tornabuoni.
In this re-enactment, Madame Hartl appears much more casual than one imagines she would have been at the ball. The portrait has a soft, sleepy quality, as if she has just arisen or is going to bed in her night attire (albeit very glamorous). The creamy fullness of her exposed skin, verging on titillation, reveals an intimacy with the subject.
Roberts’s treatment of Madame Hartl’s strange, partly concealed hand is at odds with her softness and doleful expression. She looks away from the painter and the viewer as if about to turn and leave; or perhaps something else has caught her attention.
There is another possible explanation for Roberts’s posing of the figure in this work. He may have been aware of the famous portraits of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of which shows a beautiful young woman clothed in gold-braided fabric of soft pink, her head turned slightly from the viewer; and another where the subject is shown in full profile and wearing a gown richly embroidered in autumnal colours. Roberts’s portrait seems to be a fusion of the two. The composition also has references to ‘the grand manner of Velasquez’, whose paintings Roberts had studied closely in the National Gallery in London.
Roberts painted Madame Hartl during his second extended stay in England and Europe from 1901 to 1923. It is an assured work and was shown at the Royal Academy in 1910 in this frame carved by Lillie Williamson, the artist’s wife.
 D Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni (?), c 1485–88, tempera on walnut panel, 48 x 36 cm, Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, Japan; Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1488, tempera on wood, 76 x 50 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.
 M Eagle, The oil paintings of Tom Roberts in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1997, citing Roberts to McCubbin, 14 November 1909, McCubbin papers, LTL 8525, SLV.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010