Glasgow, Scotland 1877 – Clydebank', Essendon, Melbourne , Victoria, Australia 1906
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Hugh Ramsay received early acclaim when, in 1902 at the age of 24, he had four works exhibited in Paris. Later the same year, in London, he began a portrait of Nellie Melba, but became seriously ill with consumption and was urged to return home.
In portraits, artists frequently depict their families and men and women with whom they feel empathy – who attract them as human beings. Painted on Ramsay’s return to Melbourne, this full-length portrait of his sister Madge is a carefully constructed work, a delicate balancing act between artifice, naturalism and psychological insight. On numerous occasions Ramsay painted portraits of members of his family that are imbued with an intimacy of subtle communication and mutual recognition.
Madge, who dons a big picture hat, is portrayed with decorative studio props such as a tall vase of Chinese lilies and a Japanese screen. The emphasis on tonalism and sensuous, painterly brushwork is characteristic of Ramsay’s art, reflecting his interest in John Singer Sargent and Velázquez, whose paintings he had recently seen in London. Apart from the brushwork and hint of movement in the way Madge slightly raises her skirt with her right hand, the overall impression is one of stillness and reflection. Here is the loving sister caught in a double bind: agreeing to pose for her brother, who is driven by a relentless passion for his art, but with the knowledge that he should really be resting because of his illness. Madge looks directly at him with an expression of quiet concern and compassion.
Four years after this elegant portrait was painted, Hugh Ramsay’s death from consumption represented a great loss for Australian art.
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