Hugh RAMSAY, A mountain shepherd (An Italian dwarf) Enlarge 1 /1

Hugh RAMSAY

Glasgow, Scotland 1877 – Clydebank', Essendon, Melbourne , Victoria, Australia 1906

  • Australia from 1878
  • England and France 1900-02

A mountain shepherd (An Italian dwarf) 1901 Place made: Paris, Île-de-France, Ville de Paris department, France
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: 167.5 h x 110.8 w cm framed (overall) 2017 h x 1447 w x 100 d mm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Nell Fullerton, niece of the artist, in memory of her parents, Sir John and Lady Ramsay 1980
Accession No: NGA 80.876
Provenance:
  • Gift to the Australian National Gallery, from Nell Fullerton, niece of the artist,1980.

‘It is a revelation to see all the grand works of the Old Masters’, enthused Hugh Ramsay in a letter home during his first Parisian winter, in 1901, ‘Each is so perfect in its own way, that it makes you feel a veritable baby … They just open your eyes in fine style and broaden your ideas.’

A mountain shepherd (An Italian dwarf) portrays a pauper, hired and dressed in costume by Ramsay while he was a student in Paris. In its uncompromising realism and the simplified, undecorated backdrop, the portrait reveals Ramsay’s sophisticated approach to paint and composition gleaned from European art.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2013
From: Miriam kelly, Capital & Country: The Federation Years 1900 – 1913, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2013

Hugh Ramsay’s strength lay in his ability to assess the character of his sitter and to express it by virtue of a masterly technique. He painted the portrait of this bearded Italian mountain shepherd in his country outfit using a range of browns, with a touch of red, cream and black. He used the soft tonal palette he had learnt at the National Gallery School in Melbourne.

Ramsay shows the man staring out at us calmly and confidently with a simple dignity, sure of himself and his place in the world. He painted from life, but in his choice of subject, as well as in his use of a direct, frontal pose and an uncompromising realism, Ramsay paid homage to the great seventeenth-century Spanish artist Velázquez.

Arriving in Australia as a young boy in 1878, Ramsay was a painter of portraits and genre subjects. He studied art in Paris from 1900 to 1902, but a starvation diet undermined his health and he contracted tuberculosis, from which he died in 1906 at the age of twenty-eight, four years after his return to Melbourne.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

Many expatriate artists working in Paris and London at the turn of the century were influenced by the fashions of the time, the soft palette and aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler, and the cult of Velázquez and his use of light and dark to define space and form. Hugh Ramsay painted A mountain shepherd in a range of browns, with a touch of red, cream and black. He painted from life but, in his choice of subject, and in his use of an uncompromising realism, he paid homage to Velázquez.

Ramsay depicted this bearded man staring out at the viewer with a simple dignity. He wrote:

I am painting a brigand or something. Supposed to be an Italian Mountain Shepherd, but looks more like a gnome or hobgoblin. He’s a little nuggety dwarflike fierce little cuss, so I keep me ‘verolver’ in my hip pocket ready. It’s awfully interesting both the man and the costume.1

Ramsay showed the man as being sure of himself and his place in the world, and without any sense of discomfort at having his portrait painted.

Before moving to Paris, Ramsay spent some time in Scotland visiting relatives. He had met fellow Australian artist, George Lambert, in 1900 while on board ship travelling to Britain. Later that year, exhausted from his Scottish social round, he arrived one evening at the Lamberts’ home in London and collapsed into a chair in his morning coat and silk hat. Lambert rapidly sketched this unusual and striking portrait (while his wife, Amy, revived Ramsay with tea and sympathy), creating a memorable image of an artistic friendship.

Anne Gray

1Letter dated 24 October 1901, quoted in Patricia Fullerton, Hugh Ramsay: His life and work, Melbourne, 1988, p.68


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002