Artists have often painted their own portraits because of the ready availability of the model – themselves – and also as a means of self-enquiry. In this self-portrait, the thin young man in the skimpy singlet faces us, but his head is in shadow and so we cannot see his features; we see these more clearly through the reflection in the mirror in the centre of the picture. The artist, Ambrose Patterson, was feeling insecure and experiencing a loss of self-esteem because, in 1902, his work had been rejected from the New Salon exhibiting society in Paris. Furthermore, his sister-in-law Nellie Melba had withdrawn her patronage (because he had married without telling her) in favour of his friend, Hugh Ramsay, whose talent, dedication and recent success appealed to her. In this portrait Patterson shows his inner darkness by placing his head in shadow, but reveals his hopes for a more positive future by creating another lighter and brighter image of himself in the mirror.
This remarkable self-portrait was the culmination of a series of paintings of rooms with open windows that Patterson made in Paris. He created a striking composition, a criss-crossing pattern of verticals and horizontals and of silhouetted forms. He may have used large areas of light and shade under the influence of Ramsay, in the hope of gaining some of the success of his fellow Australian expatriate.
Patterson also observed the work of other artists, including Velázquez’s group portrait, Las Meninas 1656. The mirror image in the centre of the composition, the light coming in from outside, the artist’s pose and the painting on the easel are all devices taken and adapted from the master’s painting.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002