Ramsay returned to Melbourne in August 1902, and although he regained some of his health and was reunited with fiancée and family, he must have been aware of his misfortune. He continued to paint in a vigorous and bold manner, but of course this led to relapses.
Melba returned to Australia to great acclaim, and it is to her credit that she had time to help Ramsay. She offered to let Ramsay hold an exhibition of his works at her mansion in Toorak. In less than a month Ramsay painted three portraits for the show. In all there were thirty-eight works.
Thousands of people came to the exhibition, perhaps drawn more by the chance to see Melba’s home than a relatively unknown artist. But it was the only solo exhibition of his works in his lifetime.
Ramsay was commissioned by Melba to paint her father and also her niece. In the painting “Miss Nellie Patterson” we can see the influence of Sargent in the bold use of whites and creams and in the virtuosity of the brushstrokes. He painted with a new confidence and a sense of urgency, but in comparison to the earlier muted tones of the painting “Jeanne” there is a slickness which suggests the pitfalls of using the Sargent approach.
He was asked to join a panel to judge works submitted to the Annual Student Exhibition and Travelling Scholarship, and then started on the portrait of Melba’s father. This became something of a trial, and coincided with another severe relapse.
Ramsay in early 1903 began his most ambitious work, and surprisingly it is a painting dominated by a horse. ”An equestrian portrait” is large, and the depiction of the standing horseman and the horse somewhat stiff. The figure in the background, his sister Madge, seems unfinished. But we must remember that Ramsay was extremely ill, and the disease tuberculosis can affect the sensibility of the sufferer as well as being debilitating.
One painting from this time benefits from the influence of Sargent, and is one of Ramsay’s greatest paintings. It is a life-size double portrait of two of his sisters, entitled “Two girls in white.” There is a sureness in Ramsay’s brushwork, and the sheen of the satin dresses is vividly captured.
Ramsay painted it in his family home Clydebank and the sisterly concern for their brother Hugh can be readily seen in their gaze.
Because of his failing health, Ramsay was sent in August 1904 to a farm named Burrabunnia near the town of Barnawatha. Here he convalesced, helped in the garden, and sketched. He managed to paint small portraits and some landscapes, but this was a different man from the driven artist in Paris. His self-portraits, in oil paint and pencil, reveal his awareness of and preoccupation with his decline. He documents the ravages of the disease, often with a haunted look.
His engagement with Lischen was broken, perhaps because of the futility of any relationship of a romantic nature. His sister Jessie came to stay in Burrabunnia, but she became sick with typhoid and this weakened her; she caught tuberculosis from Ramsay.
In December 1904 he returned to Melbourne, and undertook his last significant work, a portrait of Mrs. Lily Robertson. It remained unfinished, and for the next few months Ramsay seemed incapacitated.
Ramsay died at his family home on March 5th 1906. His sister Jessie died of tuberculosis four years later, aged twenty-two.
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