St Petersburg, Russia 1873 – Cobbity, New South Wales, Australia 1930
The empty glass
[Flower Piece] 1930
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
The empty glass is the last of Lambert’s flower pieces. He wrote to his agent on 10 April 1930 that it was the only flower piece he had available for sale and that he thought it to be ‘by far my best to date’. He remarked that ‘It began some time back ... with a view to supplying your urgent request ... for an elaborate piece’ (ML MSS 285/6). ‘Some time back’ is a reminder that, despite the date 1930, the painting had been shown and reviewed in the 1929 exhibition of ‘A group of contemporary painters’.
The subject consists chiefly of gladioli, a champagne bottle, a top hat, white gloves, a bowl of fruit and a gloved hand entering from the upper edge, turning down an empty glass. It is depicted from above and from a close viewpoint, which matches this odd medley of objects and the mysterious hand; together they create a sense of abandoned disarray.
When reviewing the work for the Melbourne Argus on 29 May 1930, Arthur Streeton suggested that the work was symbolic of enjoyment and the fullness of life, and that the title may derive from the ‘Rubaiyat’. In saying this Streeton was recalling the last verse in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward FitzGerald:
And when like her, oh, Saki, you shall pass Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass, And in your joyous errand reach the spot Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!
But Lambert might also have been thinking of Henry Lawson’s poem ‘The empty glass’ (1906), about three poets who ‘drink to an empty glass’ after one of their friends has died:
Three glasses they fill with the Land’s own wine, And the bread of life they pass. Their glasses they take, which they slowly raise – And they drink to an empty glass.
At the time he was painting this still life Lambert was working on the Henry Lawson memorial sculpture, and Lawson would have been very much present in his mind. In painting this work Lambert may have been saluting Lawson. Or he may have been – prophetically – saluting his own empty glass.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra