After visiting London and Scotland, Ramsay arrived in Paris in January 1901.
Paris was the centre of the art world; the revolutionary innovations of impressionism and the subsequent art movements, the impact of the 1900 Exposition, and the reputation for bohemian freedom made Parisian life very appealing to painters.
Ramsay joined an art school, the Academie Colarossi, and shared a studio with James MacDonald at 51 Boulevard St Jacques in Montparnasse. Ramsay soon became their most promising student and in 1901 and 1902 had paintings accepted by the major exhibitions.In a letter to his father he wrote: “I’ve got some grand news for you this time. I’ve had 4 pictures accepted by the Salon. Just fancy when one would have made me feel lucky and quite content…PS. Rupert Bunny had one out of four accepted.”
Through his friend Patterson he was introduced to Nellie Melba, the Australian soprano with an international reputation. She commissioned Ramsay to paint her portrait in London and when he moved there she feted him. Real success and wealth seemed at last to be achieved.
But the slum conditions, an inadequate diet and relentless hard work which marked his time in Paris led to illness and Ramsay was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He abandoned the Melba portrait and returned to Melbourne.
A mountain shepherd (An Italian dwarf)
1901 oil on canvas 167x110cm Paris National Gallery of Australia.
This painting is mentioned in a letter to sister Madge 24/10/1901. The painting is heavily derived from Velasquez in subject and treatment.
Ramsay wrote tongue in cheek:
‘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 cus, so I keep me ‘verolver’ in my hip pocket ready. It’s awfully interesting both the man and the costume.’
A student of the Latin Quarter
1901 oil on canvas on board 114x101cm Paris NGV.
Portrait of the Australian artist Ambrose Patterson. He had a studio in the same building as Ramsay’s studio. Like Ramsay, Patterson had a passion for Velasquez, and, like Lambert, became profoundly influenced by Ramsay’s work in Paris.
Patterson introduced Ramsay to Melba in 1902. The close-up image displays the technical confidence that Ramsay developed in Paris, with a bold application of thick paint.
Jeanne. 1901 oil on canvas 130x89cm Paris National Gallery of Victoria.
A portrait of Jeanne Garreau, daughter of Ramsay’s concierge in Paris. It is interesting to compare the muted tones of this painting with the later portrait of a girl at a similar age, Miss Nellie Patterson.
Lady in blue 1902 oil on canvas 172x111cm Paris. Art Gallery of New South Wales.
This painting was presented to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by the Ramsay family in 1943. It is a portrait of James MacDonald and Maud Keller, whom he later married. Ramsay wrote to his sister at the time that it was ‘the best thing [he had] done.’
The view from Ramsay’s Paris studio. Ramsay painted few outdoor scenes, and there is nothing of the excitement and grandeur of Paris in this, or the similar, but now missing, painting set in winter.
Ramsay painting his self-portrait facing a mirror. Note the piano and the slash of white on the easel. This work is influenced by the composition of “Las Meninas” by Velasquez, not in just the tonal palette and positioning of shapes, but in the relationship of the painter to the act of creation. It is not an accident that the back of the canvas is in such a prominent position, and the painter is seen in the act of painting.
Velasquez Las Meninas 1653.
There are echoes of the painting Las Meninas in, for example, Ramsay’s painting of 1901-02, Portrait of artist standing before easel. Note the splash of white in the central figure and the back of the canvas dominating the left side. Note also the tonal values echoed in Ramsay’s work.
But more importantly Ramsay would have realised, and been fascinated by, the particular nature of this painting. Ramsay would have seen that Velasquez has created a work questioning what an artistic work is, and the relationship of an artist to his creation. Ramsay throughout his life sketched and painted self-portraits, searching through the act of painting for answers to what it means to be an artist, and how he could express this and reveal himself through brushstrokes.
Being part of the scene and caught in the act of creation, is partly what makes Ramsay a more interesting painter than say, his contemporary, George Lambert.
This was the sketch done in Ramsay’s Paris studio in half an hour, on first meeting Melba.
Ramsay was awe-struck by her presence, and as his letter to his step-mother shows, he saw the commission offered by Melba to paint her full portrait as his big chance to become internationally famous.
The best description of this painting can be found in Fullerton’s biography, pp78-9.
‘Perhaps Ramsay’s most profound self-portrait is his life-size, three-quarter length in white linen jacket. Painted in the winter of 1901-2 it is a bold frontal statement in which Ramsay’s white coat stands out as a bravura display of brushwork. Buttoned high to the neck with sleeves to the wrist, this jacket by its vividness gives the flesh tones of hands and face their rightful accent without the contrivance of background props or other devices.
Our attention is otherwise drawn immediately to the freedom and deliberate rhythmic play of the brushwork on the jacket. Long white brushstrokes, sometimes over four inches long and one inch wide, sweep with an irregular herringbone effect up the coat front, the roundness of the buttons breaking the pattern.
The overall effect of the jacket is white, but in some passages Ramsay has used pale pinks, blues, greys and creams to harmonise with the various shades of white. By contrast to this luxury of paint the face is worried, the gaze almost frowning, the jaw set. As in some of his pencil sketches, Ramsay has divided his face down the middle, a division accentuated by a severe central hair-parting and the midline of his high-buttoned jacket.’
Inspired by Sargent’s approach to portraiture, the project would have made Ramsay famous, but it was unfinished due to his illness.
Melba is positioned indoors in front of an ornate red Japanese screen. Soon after painting this small sketch Ramsay had to abandon London and returned to Melbourne.
Melba paid for his ticket and continued to support him by commissioning works and hosting an exhibition at her mansion.
The artist’s studio 1901 oil on canvas 60x50cm Paris. Art Gallery of South Australia.
This is Ramsay’s studio at 51 Boulevard St Jacques in Paris.
Note the inadequate stove and large canvas.