St Petersburg, Russia 1873 – Cobbity, New South Wales, Australia 1930
The old dress
[Portrait of a Lady] 1906
2 Rossetti Studios, Flood Street, Chelsea, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Lambert painted this full-length, life-sized portrait in London, posing his subject in a shallow space in an enclosed interior before an ornate wardrobe.
The subject wears an old dress, from the early-Victorian era. She is ‘dressing up’ and posing for the painting. Her facial expression is pleasantly bland, and Lambert may have intentionally sought to reduce the importance of her facial expression.
At this time many Edwardian artists depicted intimate interiors, some showing comfortable drawing rooms with women or girls sitting reading or in quiet contemplation, focused on their own purposes, while others showed everyday scenes of women (frequently nude) carrying out their daily toilette . Lambert followed these artists in placing his subject indoors, but differed from them in presenting her posing in a somewhat artificial manner rather than in a relaxed, natural situation.
Lambert, like other Edwardian artists, was interested in costume and in making reference to the paintings of earlier artists in his work. He emphasised the theatricality of the scene by referring to the dress in the title.
In painting this study in white, grey, grey-green and black, Lambert may have been influenced by Whistler’s Harmony in grey and green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872–74 (Tate, London), which had been exhibited in Whistler’s ‘Memorial exhibition’ at the New Gallery, London, in 1905. Like Miss Alexander, Lambert’s model is dressed in a tiered white dress and shown turned in three-quarter view, with her hands by her sides. Here, instead of the grey wall with black dado in Whistler’s painting, Lambert has used the furniture to provide a kind of decorative frieze.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
‘“Well, what do you think of me?” she cried; and with a hand at her waist she spun about as if to show off some miracle of Parisian dressmaking’. So Edith Wharton’s impoverished character explains how she transformed an old dress into a new one, by simply twirling around and asking, ‘Well, what do you think of me?’ Proverbially clothes have been said to make the man—or the woman. Certainly, they have indicated a person’s wealth and position in society. They have equally been used as a disguise and as fancy dress.
The young woman was probably Kitty Fallon, one of Lambert’s favourite models at this time, who also took lessons in drawing from him. The dress is from the early Victorian era and was probably from his costume box. Kitty is portrayed ‘dressing up’ and posing for the painting in a rather artificial manner. Her facial expression is pleasantly bland, and Lambert may have intentionally sought to reduce the importance of her expression to emphasise the dress.
Lambert was one of Australia’s most brilliant, witty and fascinating artists, who produced a diverse range of work, including a number of celebrated portraits. He lived and worked in London for about twenty years, and returned to Sydney in 1921 as the most successful Australian artist of the era. He painted The old dress during his early years in London, before he had achieved significant recognition.
Like other Edwardian artists, Lambert often painted generalised portraits, and gave his works generic titles rather than those of the sitters. And like other Edwardians, he also referred to the paintings of earlier artists in his work. In this study in white, grey, grey-green and black Lambert may have been exploring Whistler’s approach to painting in Harmony in grey and green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872–74 (Tate, London), which had been exhibited in Whistler’s ‘Memorial Exhibition’ at the New Gallery, London in 1905. Like Miss Alexander, Lambert’s model is dressed in a tiered white dress and shown turned in three-quarter view, with her hands by her sides. And, in a Whistlerian manner, Lambert has used the ornate furniture to provide a kind of decorative frieze behind his subject.
 E Wharton, The reef (1912), Scribner, New York, 1993, p 46.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010