Glasgow, Scotland 1877 – Clydebank', Essendon, Melbourne , Victoria, Australia 1906
Rosenthal at piano
Paris, Île-de-France, Ville de Paris department, France
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Hugh Ramsay painted this portrait of Polish pianist Moriz Rosenthal (1862–1946) after attending his recital at the Salle des Agriculteurs in Paris on 23 January 1902, the first anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death.
Ramsay had arrived in Paris a year earlier, just before the momentous event that marked the end of an era. Perhaps, back in his wintry studio after the excitement of escorting Amy Lambert—wife of friend and fellow-artist George W Lambert—to hear the celebrated pianist, the artist sensed his own passing in the shadows.
Rosenthal’s repertoire at the time included works by Chopin, Liszt and Schubert; and he would almost certainly have played his own composition, ‘Papillons’, at the recital. Yet his genius at the keyboard—a touch keen enough to set butterflies dancing—is not felt in Ramsay’s portrait.
Music was almost as important as painting to Ramsay and within two months of arriving in Paris he had cut his food budget to hire a piano. He played well and entertained his friends with gusto, especially when spirits were low. In the same way, he would fill his letters home with anecdotes and sketches of his wonderful new art-life and the success of his work in the Salons. Small as it is, however, Rosenthal at the piano has none of the liveliness of a sketch. The paint is thick and deliberately applied, more with palette knife than brush; the colours are subdued.
The horizontal composition of Ramsay’s painting is similar to Whistler’s 1859 work, At the piano (Taft Museum, Cincinatti). But whereas Whistler shows a sumptuous golden room where a young girl in white gazes enraptured at the beautiful pianist, Ramsay’s painting is bleak, the grand piano almost like a grave. And this toughness is the source of its power.
Hugh Ramsay was a ‘bright star’ at the centre of his family but he readily identified with the short-lived Romantic poet John Keats and became something of a soul mate of Dame Nellie Melba, who lost her mother when young. The warmth of this connection is no better expressed than in Ramsay’s portrait of her niece, Miss Nellie Patterson 1903. Within the context of the Rosenthal work it is a shimmering affirmation of life. But death stalked the artist, who passed away on 5 March 1906 at his childhood home in Melbourne.
Laura Murray Cree
 P Fullerton, Hugh Ramsay, his life and work, Hudson, Hawthorn, 1988, p 60.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010