“While it is undeniably a temptation to ask what might have been had Ramsay lived longer, the same is seldom asked of Keats,” writes curator, Deborah Hart, in the excellent catalogue that accompanies the Hugh Ramsay retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia. “Instead,” she continues, “let us contemplate and engage in the richness of Ramsay’s oeuvre and what was achieved.”
One can only respond: “Hear, hear! Let’s enjoy what we have of Ramsay rather than wallow in morbid speculation” – but this is wishful thinking. The death of Hugh Ramsay on 5 March, 1906, at the age of 28, is one of the unequivocal tragedies of Australian art. From the First Fleet to the present day we’ve never seen an artist of such prodigious talent whose career was so cruelly nipped in the bud.
The fact that Ramsay expired from tuberculosis encourages comparisons with John Keats, a poet he greatly admired, but Keats’s death at the age of 25 is part of his legend. It’s almost unthinkable that he should have lived on and become a crashing old windbag, as some have unkindly characterised Coleridge and Wordsworth.
In romantic terms there’s something perfect about Keats’s early demise. With Hugh Ramsay it’s a very different story, best traced in Patricia Fullerton’s definitive monograph of 1988. A star from his earliest days at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, an instant hit in Paris, a favourite artist of Dame Nellie Melba, Ramsay had it on a plate. When diagnosed with his fatal disease he lamented that the “absolute success” he had within his grasp was being snatched away.
This was no self-pitying exaggeration. When one looks at the grafting, social-climbing careers of Australian artists who made their way in Paris and London during the fin-de-siéclè, Ramsay’s rapid rise was unique. Where Streeton and Longstaff spent their time cultivating acquaintances and running after commissions, Ramsay seemed to attract admirers.
In 1902, in just his second year in a freezing Parisian studio, he had four pictures accepted for the New Salon. This was such an unusual feat that a friend ran through the streets at midnight to inform the artist of his good fortune. Even the established masters rarely got more than two works hung.
Melba, one of the superstars of the age, turned up at Ramsay’s studio, took an instant liking to him, and became his greatest patron and promoter. His career prospects were assured, but it’s intriguing to speculate as to how Ramsay’s work would have evolved.
By the time of his death Ramsay was still a conventional tonal realist but no slave to tradition or technique. The unusually bright tones of an allegorical work, The four seasons (c.1902) hint at a flirtation with Symbolism. The imposing scale and bold forms of An equestrian portrait (c.1903) – created when he should have been too frail to attempt a large canvas – suggest an ambition to go beyond the comfortable confines of easel painting. In his self-portraits and pictures of the studio one sees his willingness to experiment with theme and composition.
Like most of the Australian artists who went on to study in Paris or London, Ramsay reserved his greatest admiration for Old Masters such as Velázquez. Among the moderns his idols were artists such as Whistler, Sargent and Puvis de Chavannes. These were entirely predictable choices, in line with the rigorous training he had received under Bernard Hall at the NGV School. But the world had already begun to change. In 1905 Matisse and the Fauves stormed the Salon d’automne. In 1907 Picasso would paint Les demoiselles d’Avignon.
The fact that Ramsay died at a time when art was undergoing a series of revolutionary upheavals leaves one wondering if he might have responded to the challenges of Modernism in a more adventurous way than his Australian peers. The other X factor is the First World War, in which he would have been obliged to participate. One assumes he would taken a similar path to that of his friend, George Lambert (1873-1930) whose incipient modernity became more evident over time.
So much for speculation. If we give the curator her wish and simply look at Ramsay’s artistic legacy there’s no denying that he painted some of the greatest pictures in Australian art history. The half-nudes and figure studies produced during his student years are works of great skill and surprising maturity. If he was twice pipped for the coveted Travelling Scholarship it’s because his inclinations did not extend to the melodrama of Victorian genre painting. Ramsay’s scholarship entry of 1896, At last, which shows a dying mother and her small daughters being visited by a couple of do-gooders, is a gloomy, corny, unconvincing affair.
Having made his way to Paris by means of a raffle and a helping hand from his father, Ramsay settled down to paint portraits and still lifes. There is probably nothing better from these years than Jeanne (1901), a portrait of the small daughter of his concierge. Tiny and frail, with a strangely sad face, the little girl looks as if she is about to slide off the chair. Her legs dangle helplessly, her body contracts to hold the pose.
On the whole, most painters have shown no more affection for children than W.C.Fields, who advised they should be avoided at all costs. Ramsay, however, was an outstanding children’s portraitist. As part of a large, happy family, he had plenty of practice depicting his sisters, Madge and Jessie. The bookend to Jeanne is Miss Nellie Patterson (1903), a portrait of Nellie Melba’s adored niece. In her white satin dress Miss Patterson looks rather more prosperous than her French counterpart, but she is working just as hard to stay on the chair.
It’s not just Ramsay’s looming sense of his own mortality that makes this exhibition so touching, it’s his ability to instill so many ineffable qualities into a picture. High on the list are his sympathy, his humanity, his taste for simplicity and significant detail. Where Lambert was flamboyant, Ramsay is intimate. Each painting, no matter how small, is permeated by a sense of introspection.
One sees this especially in his portrayals of his sisters, and his fiancée, Lischen Müller, who would break off the engagement as Ramsay drew closer to the “dark door” he described in his letters.
By general assent, Ramsay’s masterpiece is Two girls in white (AKA. The sisters) (1904), which portrays his sisters, Madge and Nell, in their ball gowns. For a picture of two seated figures it’s a surprisingly dynamic composition with a pronounced circular movement, given a touch of drama by the play of darkness and light. The two girls appear at first to be stretching out lazily, but when we study their faces we find them staring back at their brother with scarcely veiled concern and intensity. The artist and his sitters recognise their time together will be brief. Through this painting that moment has been extended indefinitely.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
30 November, 2019 – 29 March, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1 February, 2019