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A retrospective of Hugh Ramsay's work at the National Gallery of Australia shines a light on one of Australia's most talented artists

When Hugh Ramsay set out to paint a portrait of his baby sister Jessie, he was just 20 years old and already a rising star in the Melbourne art world. The portrait - close-up, front on, showing Jessie looking quizzical, and comfortable - is as frank and moving as any lovingly framed snapshot of a young girl today, one with long blond hair and frank blue eyes. Her white dress, sumptuous blue satin ribbon and big hat could easily be a dress-up. It could, in other words, have been painted yesterday.

Hugh Ramsay's Two Girls in White, 1904. Picture: Supplied

Hugh Ramsay's Two Girls in White, 1904. Picture: Supplied

In fact, Ramsay painted Jessie with Doll more than 120 years ago, in 1897 in his Melbourne studio. Just out of art school, he was already a legend among his peers, and his entire, brilliant career lay ahead of him.

Four years later, Ramsay would paint another striking portrait of another young girl, Jeanne, the daughter of the concierge of the freezing Paris studio apartment he shared with another Australian artist, in 1902. She too is content to pose briefly enough for him to capture her vividly on the canvas, hands clasped in a blue-grey dress with a lace collar, her black stockinged legs dangling. We know from his letters that he persuaded her to sit still with the promise of Australian stamps.

We also know that this would be one of four of Ramsay's paintings that were accepted and hung in the coveted New Salon in Paris that year, a feat almost unheard of for any artist, let alone a young Australian.

Jessie with doll, 1897. Picture: Supplied

Jessie with doll, 1897. Picture: Supplied

The following year, struck down with tuberculosis and back in Australia, he would paint another girl, Nellie Patterson, niece of Dame Nellie Melba. Resplendent in a white party dress with a glowing pink satin ribbon, her face - large dark eyes, rosebud mouth - is perfectly captured. Like Jeanne, she has folded hands, her satin-slippered feet dangling tenderly over the edge of a large pink cushion.

Ramsay, young and prodigiously talented, had just a few years left to live, but this work was among his greatest. It hangs in the National Gallery of Australia, drawing in viewers of all ages to linger, struck by the sheer presence of both sitter and artist.

These three perfect portraits will, for the first time, be displayed side by side at the National Gallery of Australia in a major retrospective of Ramsay's work, including paintings, drawings, sketches and letters from collections around Australia. It's been at least 25 years since an Australian gallery held such a show; curator Deborah Hart says it's high time the quintessential "artist's artist" received due credit.

For curator Hart, pondering Ramsay's works has been a career-long preoccupation.

"What is so wonderful in doing retrospectives is that it brings together works that you have never seen in the same spaces before, and you can see those connections between the works," she says.

"He deserves to be better known in Australia, and that's really one of the key aims of this exhibition, to show people what he did, not what he might have done."

It's the short life, and the early death at 28, that seems to stick in the mind when it comes to Ramsay. But, as a type of prodigy, his career as an artist was eventful and accomplished as one who might have lived a much longer life.

Jeanne, 1901, was selected to hang in the New Salon in Paris. Picture: Supplied

Jeanne, 1901, was selected to hang in the New Salon in Paris. Picture: Supplied

Paradoxically for an artist who is lesser known than many others in the Australian canon, Ramsay made it easy for us to get to know him. Not only did he leave behind many letters - beautiful handwriting, lovely turn of phrase - he also made dozens of self-portraits throughout his career. They were, in turns, playful, inquisitive, self-searching and self-knowing. Slim, dark and handsome, he posed, he slumped, he stood high, he turned to one side. He painted himself in shirtsleeves, a white jacket, a suit, a dressing gown.

He also painted his friends and family, portraits of his brothers and sisters that dripped with love and familiarity. We also know that he, too, was loved and admired by all who knew him, be they fellow scholars, artists, friends and patrons.

Born in Scotland, he migrated with his family to Melbourne as a baby, and knew early on that he would be an artist. He arrived at art school when he was just 16, and quickly became an admired student.

"In terms of the broad brush of how he sits in Australian art, I think one of the reasons he's called an artist's artist is that right from the early days when he went to art school at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, artists really respected and admired him," Hart says.

"His father was quite reluctant for him to become an artist, but he had this sense of a vocation, and he was really driven. You just look at the comments that artists make at the time and it's quite unusual, because people obviously are focused on their own works, but they were really taking notice of what he was doing and that applied both to the other students, and his teachers."

Miss Nellie Patterson, painted in 1903, is a favourite at the National Gallery of Australia. Picture: Supplied

Miss Nellie Patterson, painted in 1903, is a favourite at the National Gallery of Australia. Picture: Supplied

It was while at art school that he painted his striking Seated Girl, a woman, naked from the waist up and with her back to us. Her long, loose hair is tenderly parted and hung over her shoulders to show the back of her neck and her slender white back. It is both contemplative and mysterious, a moment in which Ramsay is taking the time to just look.

This work has long been a favourite for many art lovers who come across Ramsay's work. It wasn't the only one. Ramsay showed a talent early on for life drawing, and another of his art-school nudes - a disarmingly confident, front-on young woman, again naked from the waist up - would hang on the walls of the art school for many years, and became a focus and inspiration for several generations of younger students.

Later, it was his friends and colleagues who helped him scrape together enough money to travel to Paris, the epicentre of the art world for a young Australian artist in 1900.

Once there, he continued to impress, even while living and working in a small, freezing studio above a soda factory in Montparnasse, which he shared with another Australian artist, James McDonald.

The studio would feature in many of his self-portraits, which often showed unfinished canvases in the background, or framed words ready to be sent off.

Hart says he also spent time in museums and galleries, absorbing the works of other artists and, like with his early works in Australia, where he worked under Frederick McCubbin, showing their influences unashamedly.

Burrabunnia with orange tree was painted in 1904 while Hugh Ramsay was convalescing in the countryside. Picture: Supplied

Burrabunnia with orange tree was painted in 1904 while Hugh Ramsay was convalescing in the countryside. Picture: Supplied

When he wasn't working, he was entertaining friends, playing music and spending time with other artists.

Hart says his letters home were those of a humble, thoughtful, but strangely diffident man.

"I actually think one of the things that comes through in the letters is what a really lovely person he was, and how he's quite humble and he's often putting himself down," she says.

"He does really well but he says, 'It doesn't do you any good getting carried away with yourself'. He's always conscious of how much there is to learn. But you can see that what he's doing in Paris is really setting the bar high for himself."

But the outwardly romantic life of the impoverished artist in Paris would eventually betray him. It was while on a trip to London to visit a new fan, the then hugely famous Nellie Melba, that he became ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He never got to finish the portrait he had begun on that visit. But this was far from the end of Ramsay's journey. Once he returned to Australia in 1902 and was told to rest, he responded by ramping up his practice, producing his finest work and documenting his own decline in his ever-changing, but ever-constant self-portraits.

In 1904, two years after returning to Melbourne, he would create what many describe, even today, as his masterpiece, the luminous Two Girls in White, a life-size portrait of two of his sisters, Madge and Nell. They're wearing elegant white evening dresses, and look like they've just returned from a night out. They are glowing, in their beautiful gowns, both casual and comfortable. Nell lounges across the chair, one glove hanging loose, while Madge is stretching her arms out in front of her.

But, as is the case with all great paintings, the longer you spend with it, the more you see. There is concern on these girls' faces, something in their near future that they can almost glimpse in the face of their own brother.

Hugh Ramsay painted this self-portrait, one of many, in his Paris studio in 1901-1902. Picture: Supplied

Hugh Ramsay painted this self-portrait, one of many, in his Paris studio in 1901-1902. Picture: Supplied

At just 26, Ramsay was dying, even as he created this and some of his best works, but knowing this doesn't make the work any less striking, or more poignant. It just casts it in a more urgent light, even as the image is one of repose, of family time and idle hours. Hart says it's his close proximity to his sitters - both physically and emotionally, that brings both Ramsay and his work closer to the viewer.

"I do think that works of art that transcend time do speak to people in ways that you can't necessarily pin down."

Ultimately, Ramsay's story is tragic, but so are many others from the era. Ramsay was a fan of the poet John Keats, who died at 25, but, as Hart points out, people seldom dwell on what Keats might have achieved had he lived.

"I think [Ramsay] would have loved us to just really get what he did," she says. "Instead of obeying doctor's orders, he actually, in some of his paintings, goes larger, he challenges himself more, and I think the thinking of it is that, what the hell, I'm going to give it my best shot, I want to be remembered."

Ramsay lived and worked for another four years after his diagnosis, and throughout his short, brilliant career, created some 85 works.

"He really pushes himself, and I really feel like there is a positive message here, that while it's a really tragic story, I think he wouldn't have wanted us to feel pity but really think about how much he achieved."

  • Hugh Ramsay opens at the National Gallery of Australia on November 30 and runs until March 29. Entry is free
This story Hugh Ramsay: the bright star of Australian art first appeared on The Canberra Times.