One of the great delights of the current show of masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery is discovering an artist who has been off of my radar: Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). After standing transfixed before the portrait of his beautiful bride, I have to find ways of viewing his wonderful art in person.
Sadly, the one negative of viewing this wonderful piece is the awful security forces at the Frick. It would seem as if they were trained expressly to keep people from engaging with the masterworks on display.
While there, one guard in particular – a Pearl W. according to her name tag – admonished people for gesticulating in front of the pictures, looked over another visitor’s shoulder while she was making notes, and scolded your correspondent for taking off his glasses to lean in for a closer look. She – and most of the security team at the Frick – should not be in a business where they have to interact with the public.
But, back to the picture -- Margaret Lindsay married Ramsay against her family’s wishes. She had been taking drawing lessons from Ramsay, and was an accomplished artist in her own right. When the two fell in love, Ramsay wrote to her father, ensuring him that he could care for his daughter, despite supporting a daughter from his first marriage, as well as his two sisters.
Her father, from the Clan Murray and with strong Pro-Jacobite ties, strongly believed that the marriage was beneath his daughter. However, marry they did, and remained happily together, producing three children.
Ramsay and his wife spent the early part of their lives together touring Italy, including Rome, Florence, Naples and Tivoli. There, they were engaged in antiquarian pursuits, and spent time copying old masters. He also made considerable money painting portraits of tourists.
Returning home in 1761, Ramsay became a painter in the court of George III. There, he worked mainly as a portraitist, and the king commissioned so many royal portraits to be given to ambassadors and colonial governors that Ramsay had to employ multiple assistants.
Ramsay retired from painting for literary pursuits. He was also nursing a disability caused by accidently dislocating his right arm, and further stymied by the death of his beloved wife in 1782.
He soon returned to Italy, where he had been happiest, and died there in 1784.
Well … what can one say about this beautiful and haunting portrait that is not evident simply by looking at it? There is minimal background detail – just a simply suggested doorway and bit of lintel that is almost invisible in this photo, but quite noticeable in the actual picture.
This Spartan background does well to heighten the placid beauty of Mrs. Ramsay. But her placidity never denotes coldness – quite the contrary, her frank gaze and gentle smile denote considerable warmth and tenderness.
Her tenderness is underscored by the flower she holds; however, her surroundings seem not to register with her as much as her gaze at we, the viewer. This is a frankly engaging look, and she looks at us with honesty and without defenses. It is a frank and open countenance, full of benevolence and a touch of nurturing motherliness.
Ramsay has mastered details without ever becoming fussy. Look at the bit of blue lace that adorns her hair, or, better yet, look at the intricate notes of her shawl. It is exquisitely rendered without ever becoming precious, just as the vase suggests a world of detail without ever becoming formal in its composition.
Speaking of composition – look at Ramsay’s flawless sense of composition. The line of Margaret’s arm, lower arm and hand lead the eye down, then up, and directly back to the head. Simple, yet such basic building blocks are essential in the success of a work; the eye is in constant movement, and we are held by the force of her personality and her husband’s artistry.
It is no mistake that the blue lace that adorns her hair points to her broad and noble brow, as well as her clear and lovely eyes. The grace, poise and ease of Mrs. Ramsay are remarkable, and it is no wonder the artist adored her.
Tomorrow, we return to the Frick for a look at John Constable.