Poignancy from the painter who died young

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Installation shot of Hugh Ramsay exhibition, centre, portrait sketch of Nellie Melba.

Visual art / “Hugh Ramsay”. At the National Gallery, until March 29. Reviewed by JOHN LANDT.

HUGH Ramsay’s paintings are remarkable for their engaging directness.

His portraits bring to life the people he loved and knew, as in the portraits of his younger sisters “Madge 1897” and “Jessie with doll 1897”, and the ”Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba 1902”. They provide a convincing sense of the personalities of these women whom he loved and respected, who are depicted as real people, not the idealised figures that were the fashion of the time. Likewise, his portraits of children “Jeanne 1903” and “Miss Nellie Patterson 1903” convey their distinct personalities.

The simple painting of the woman he hoped to marry “Lischen 1902” is simply beautiful. It also shows his ability in making the predominantly brown colours sing with warmth and life, unlike the turgid browns in the paintings of Max Meldrum and other artists of that era. The two back views of young women “Nude study – female model, half draped, back view 1895” and “Seated girl c.1897” which he completed as a student at the National Gallery School in Melbourne have an intense presence and air of quiet concentration.

Hugh Ramsay, ‘Jessie with doll,’ 1897

His best pictures are his simplest – portraits, single figures and simple landscapes – such as the campsite at Sorrento back beach on the Mornington Peninsula “The tent 1897” and the streetscape at night “Lamplight 1897”. They reveal his outstanding skills as a painter. These simple scenes resonate with life due to his skilled application of paint across the broad areas that are balanced formally, while the softness of the painted areas creates a vibrant luminosity.

Less successful are the narrative paintings with which he struggled over extended periods. The figures in “At last 1896” appear distant and the composition is awkward and dominated by empty spaces. More effective is “Anxiety c.1899” but this also appears staged and lacks the engaging directness of his portraits and single figure studies.

His late painting of the farmhouse where he stayed shortly before his death at age 28 from tuberculosis “Burrabunnia with orange tree 1904” provides a poignant reminder of what might have been had he lived longer. The simple forms and the warm colours vibrating in the sunlight are filled with energy and with his love for this typically Australian rural scene.

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