In this portrait of his good friend, the painter and etcher Louis Abrahams, Roberts located his subject in a setting typical of the aesthetic of the time, with a screen, Asian cane chair and Turkish rug. On a shelf, behind the sitter, are a few small oil sketches, presumably painted en plein air by Abrahams, and a green umbrella, for outdoor painting.
Roberts depicted Abrahams’ face, hands and suit in a tight, precise manner, using beiges and greys. The background is a deep red, a colour he adopted in a number of portrait settings. Roberts divided the composition into a series of geometric shapes, the larger and smaller right angles formed by the pose of the sitter, the frame behind him and the screen to the left, reflecting Roberts’ consistent concern with structure.
Two years later, Roberts painted a portrait of Abrahams’ wife, Golda, also seated in a wicker chair and surrounded by objects appropriate to his sitter. In placing these subjects within such settings, Roberts may have been influenced by Manet’s 1868 portrait of Emile Zola, which Roberts may have seen soon after Manet’s death, in his January 1884 retrospective at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Manet also surrounded Zola with things he found important, including a Japanese print and screen.
Born in London in 1852, Abrahams arrived in Australia in 1860, aged eight. He studied at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, where he formed close friendships with Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. He worked with these artists at the painting camps at Box Hill, Mentone and Heidelberg. McCubbin later recalled these times, writing to Roberts in 1910: ‘Do you remember looking at the Tea trees at Sandringham that evening long ago when you first came back from England. The Don [Louis Abrahams], you and I, and you showed us its glorious colour. I have never forgotten’.
Abrahams’ paintings of this period include watercolours painted en plein air, and in 1886 and 1887 he exhibited paintings and etchings with the Australian Artists’ Association. Abrahams’ family were importers of cigars and Louis supplied the cigar-box lid panels that the artists used for many of their ‘9 by 5 Impressions’. He was, however, unable to give much time to his art because he yielded to his father’s wishes to join the family business. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1903.
This is the only known formal portrait that Roberts painted of his close friend, although he did include him, a year earlier, with his back to the viewer in A quiet day on Darebin Creek 1885 and as the central figure earnestly frying eggs in The artists’ camp 1886. Moreover, it is possible that he and Golda are the couple shown seated on the ground enjoying an intimate picnic in A Sunday afternoon picnic at Box Hill c 1887. In 1887, Abrahams was also the subject of a portrait by John Mather, in which he depicted the artist from the back, seated at his easel.
Anne Gray, Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 84, Summer 2015