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Australian art

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The foil



Hugh Ramsay


25 May 1877 - 05 Mar 1906


Throughout his studentship at Melbourne's National Gallery School, Hugh Ramsay studied the methods of a range of old master painters, but it was the work of Velasquez that he was most intent on pursuing when he left Australia for Europe in 1900. Ramsay's first-hand study of Velasquez would significantly enhance his formative painting practice, particularly his portrait painting, for which he had demonstrated obvious talent as a Melbourne student.

Painted during his initial year in Paris, 'The foil' (1901) suggests Ramsay’s study of Velasquez's methods for enhancing atmosphere, posing the lit figure against a darkened, unembellished backdrop. The sitter for the portrait was John Forrest Ramsay, the artist’s cousin. While guided by the influence of Velasquez's tonalism, 'The foil' is also testament to the range of artistic sources that were shaping Ramsay's painting practice at this time. The elongated format of the work alludes to the grand traditions of portraiture; to van Dyck's "refinement and poetry of line" that Ramsay wrote of from Paris, yet overall exudes an air of simplicity suggestive of contemporary portraiture, particularly the work of Whistler. The subject's pose, dress, backdrop and slim-line form all allude to a Whistlerian style of minimalism. However 'The foil' is ultimately stamped with Ramsay's own emerging subdued aesthetic, or his search, as Bernard Smith once claimed, for the 'true values [of] dark tones'.




Media category


Materials used

oil on canvas


166.4 x 69.7 cm stretcher; 193.3 x 96.5 x 8.0 cm frame :

0 - Whole, 233.5 cm, SIGHT DIMENSION

Signature & date

Signed l.l. corner, black oil "Hugh Ramsay". Not dated.


Gift of the family of Hugh Ramsay 1943


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Hugh Ramsay

Artist profile

Works in the collection


Shown in 5 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 3 publications


Patricia Fullerton, Hugh Ramsay 1877-1906, Melbourne, 1992, 42 (illus. in colour). 20

Bernard William Smith, Place, taste and tradition: a study of Australian art since 1788, 'The aftermath of Impressionism', pg. 146-180, South Melbourne, 1979, 150 (illus.), 151. plate no. 55

Editor Unknown (Editor), Argus, 'Paintings of Hugh Ramsay. Australian's notable work', Melbourne, 01 Oct 1918. Review of Hugh Ramsay's 1918 Memorial Exhibition, held at the Fine Art Society, Melbourne.