Many expatriate artists working in Paris and London at the turn of the century were influenced by the fashions of the time, the soft palette and aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler, and the cult of Velázquez and his use of light and dark to define space and form. Hugh Ramsay painted A mountain shepherd in a range of browns, with a touch of red, cream and black. He painted from life but, in his choice of subject, and in his use of an uncompromising realism, he paid homage to Velázquez.
Ramsay depicted this bearded man staring out at the viewer with a simple dignity. He wrote:
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 cuss, so I keep me ‘verolver’ in my hip pocket ready. It’s awfully interesting both the man and the costume.1
Ramsay showed the man as being sure of himself and his place in the world, and without any sense of discomfort at having his portrait painted.
Before moving to Paris, Ramsay spent some time in Scotland visiting relatives. He had met fellow Australian artist, George Lambert, in 1900 while on board ship travelling to Britain. Later that year, exhausted from his Scottish social round, he arrived one evening at the Lamberts’ home in London and collapsed into a chair in his morning coat and silk hat. Lambert rapidly sketched this unusual and striking portrait (while his wife, Amy, revived Ramsay with tea and sympathy), creating a memorable image of an artistic friendship.
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