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When it was first exhibited, Tom Roberts’s portrait of Mrs. L. A. Abrahams was dismissed as ‘a combination of portraiture with genre, which cannot be pronounced a success’ (Age, 16 Nov. 1888, p. 8). Curiously, it is the setting of the portrait in a real interior that accounts for much of the picture’s fascination for us today. The sitter is Golda Abrahams (1858–1945), nee Brasch, the wife of Louis Abrahams, Roberts’s friend and painting companion at Box Hill, Port Phillip Bay and Heidelberg. Roberts had been a witness at their wedding in Sydney on 21 March 1888 and, upon their return to Melbourne, is said to have painted this portrait as a wedding present. The flowers suggest winter or spring, and the setting is Roberts’s studio in Grosvenor Chambers, the purpose-built art centre that had opened at the top of Collins Street, Melbourne, in April 1888. Abrahams also had a studio there.

Roberts painted a number of ‘friendship’ portraits – his Smike Streeton age twenty-four, of 1891 which he retained until his death, is the most famous – but this painting is unique in his oeuvre. Its genre format and intimate ‘cabinet’ size were perfect for his homage to friendship: three cups and saucers have been laid out on the Japanese tray, and he has even scraped away the sitter’s hat, originally included, to make her seem more ‘at home’ in his interior.

Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

Details

  • Title: Mrs L. A. Abrahams
  • Creator: Tom Roberts
  • Date created: 1888
  • Location created: Melbourne, Australia
  • Physical Dimensions: 41.0 x 36.0 cm (Unframed)
  • Type: Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1946, © National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Provenance: Collection of Mr and Mrs Louis Abrahams (d. 1903, d. 1927) and their Estate, until August 1919; probably included in the sale of Australian Pictures collected by the late Louis Abrahams, and others, Decoration Co., Melbourne, 15 August 1919, no. 9 as ‘Tom Roberts – Interior with Figure’; unknown private collection until 1946; purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria, 1946.
  • Place Part Of: Australia
  • Additional information: Roberts knew from his time in Europe and from the art press just how important a fashionably furnished studio could be in the promotion and sale of an artist’s work. His studio: was most picturesquely arranged ... cunningly placed draperies in rich soft tones, broken here and there by bunches of dry reeds and grasses. Some kind friends had sent in a profusion of lovely flowers for the adornment of the studio, and these were clustered together in great masses, and kept away from the paintings they lit up the room ... and so produced a most charming effect. (Table Talk, 26 Apr. 1889, p. 5) The studio was draped à la Whistler with muslin, a panel of which can be seen behind Golda Abrahams, and the interior abounds with oriental accessories – a taste for which Roberts helped pioneer in Melbourne. His floral arrangements were also novel and, writing in the 1930s, when the fashion for ‘gum tips’ was at its peak, Arthur Streeton claimed that it was Roberts who initiated the vogue back in the late 1880s. (Argus, 21 Jun. 1932, p. 8) The portrait is another demonstration of Roberts’s extraordinary technical facility in representing appearances.

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