Glasgow, Scotland 1877 – Clydebank', Essendon, Melbourne , Victoria, Australia 1906
Self-portrait, bust showing hands
c.1901 Description: bust, showing hands, one with cigar
Place made: Paris, Île-de-France, Ville de Paris department, France
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas Support: canvas
Hugh Ramsay’s self-portraits painted in his Paris studio are some of the most important works by an Australian expatriate artist at the turn of the twentieth century. Ramsay was a prolific painter, producing over 25 self-portraits in oil and pencil, as well as studio interiors and portraits of fellow artists, friends and commissioned subjects.
Self-portrait: bust showing hands shows Ramsay, possibly at the end of an enjoyable evening, his handsome features flushed and his tie loosened. This is a relaxed moment shared with the viewer—the sense of intimacy accentuated by the painting’s horizontal format and the close cropping of the sitter’s face and hands.
A smaller self-portrait than was usual for the artist, this work nonetheless shows his accomplishment as a portrait painter. Taking on the role of sitter liberated Ramsay from the expense of hired models and allowed a degree of critical self-analysis and introspection. Working from a mirror image, the painting reveals an artist who is fascinated by character and personality. His quizzical eyes see us, without too much intent, but enough to engage our interest. The paintbrush in his left hand seems like an unlit cigar while the right hand betrays the artist’s rather foppish, demeanour.
The lighting in the work is dramatic. With his face in half darkness, we see Ramsay, the model, glowing in subdued light. The tonal composition reduces the background detail to subtle patterns on the armchair and in the light reflected off his smooth skin. The starched white collar strikes a note of contrast. This work would have been painted at night by oil lamp, hinting at Ramsay’s impoverished Parisian lifestyle.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Ramsay’s family migrated to Australia in 1878, settling in Melbourne. He studied painting under Bernard Hall at the National Gallery School, Melbourne and travelled to Europe in 1900 with George Lambert. In Paris, Ramsay studied at the Académie Colarossi. In 1902, four works were selected for display at the New Salon in Paris; a remarkable achievement for such a young and relatively unknown Australian artist.
Tragically, Hugh Ramsay’s potential to become a major Australian artist was cut short. Falling ill with tuberculosis, he returned to Australia in 1902 where he painted with even greater urgency. His health worsened and he died just before his 29th birthday.
 A Gray, The Edwardians: secrets and desires, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2004, pp 116, 212–13.
 P Fullerton, Hugh Ramsay, his life and work, Hudson, Hawthorn, 1988, pp 72, 79.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010