The Australian painter Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906) is not a household name, but he should be. This brilliant exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia makes this bold claim.
In any popular account of Australian art, the late 19th century is dominated by the so-called Heidelberg School, more recently rebadged as the Australian Impressionists, who lingered into the next century. The next big thing was the early modernists of the late 1930s and the 1940s. It is in this interlude that Ramsay's star shines brightly.
Although born in Scotland, Ramsay as a wee baby arrived in Melbourne and can be thought of as a product of the Melbourne art scene. Almost as a child prodigy, Ramsay entered the National Gallery School at the age of 16 and blossomed under the mentorship of Bernard Hall - perhaps a conservative disciplinarian, but he headed an institution that excelled in training artists in the academic tradition. Ramsay emerged as a brilliant draughtsman and a soundly trained painter.
Ramsay missed out on the School's travelling scholarship that would have given him a degree of financial security. Instead, his friends scraped together some funds for him to travel to Europe in 1900. Here his star was in ascendency with recognition at the Paris salon, critical acclaim and admiration from his peers. Within three months of arriving in Paris, Ramsay had a work accepted to the Salon de la Société des Artists Franais (Old Salon) and in March the following year, in 1902, he had the greatest recognition in his short career when four of his paintings were accepted for the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (New Salon).
He was introduced to the most famous Australian expat of his generation, Dame Nellie Melba, and in excitement he wrote back to his family: "I have met someone who will be of more help to me than anyone else ... and told me she would be very angry with me if I didn't go and see her first thing when I get to London, and she promised quite voluntarily, of her own accord, to do everything she can to help me; which coming from such a person, is almost an assurance of success."
Obligingly, Ramsay raced back to London to commence his full-length portrait of Melba, but with the grand diva being in such high demand, sittings were brief and infrequent. Tragically, his lifestyle and squalid living conditions caught up with him and late in 1902 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The following year, he limped back to Melbourne where he ignored his doctors and continued to paint. Ramsay died on 5 March 1906, aged 28.
Deborah Hart, the curator of this exhibition and the author of an excellent and sumptuously produced monograph that accompanies the show, following the lead of Patricia Fullerton, the artist's great-niece and biographer, draws a pertinent parallel between Ramsay and the great English romantic poet John Keats, who also died in his twenties of tuberculosis. Like many artists of the time, Ramsay was a great early admirer of Keats, but had no idea that his career was to so tragically follow in his footsteps.
Constantly we are stopped in our tracks and are called upon to explore these miracles of paint.
What is so magnificent about the work of Ramsay that it transcends mere historic curiosity? Like many artists of the Edwardian period, Ramsay worked in awe of the great Spaniard Diego Velzquez for his sheer mastery of visual intelligence. Also like many of his generation, Ramsay looked long and hard at the work of his near contemporaries, especially James McNeill Whistler and Edouard Manet, and, in London, he came to admire the work of John Singer Sargent on display at the Royal Academy, with its spirited, gestural brushwork and looseness of touch.
Although he was very much an artist of his time and engaged mainly in portraiture and the academic genres of his day, Ramsay had an intuitive genius to extract the quintessential aspect of painting - colour and paint application - that transcends time and seduces anyone who loves painting.
In 1904, Ramsay painted a life-size double portrait, Two girls in white, where the Sargent-inspired freedom of brushwork in the sea of white, cream and gold is combined with a strikingly bold and original composition. The sitters, Ramsay's sisters Madge and Nell, are posed in an unusual and marvellously compact composition. While the slightly melancholy gaze may be read biographically - namely that his family was aware the artist's death was imminent and through the act of painting he was speeding up his own demise - there is a boldness in the virtuosity of paint application and complete mastery of touch. The passages of white on white are simply breathtaking and a challenge even to artists who devote their whole lives to this pursuit, like Robert Ryman.
Throughout this exhibition, there are passages of brilliance, including the dreamy loving portrait of Amy Lambert (1901), the stunning Self-portrait in white jacket (1901-02) or the quirky Four seasons (c.1902). Constantly we are stopped in our tracks and are called upon to explore these miracles of paint.
Each generation needs to rediscover Ramsay for itself. This retrospective, the first in a quarter of a century, reasserts his genius and outstanding virtuosity. In his paintings, the exceptional sense of presence, fluidity in technique and compositional boldness are all hallmarks of Ramsay's work and continue to reverberate throughout the history of Australian art.
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