Portrait of Mary
by Allan Ramsay
Scottish/Worked in London and Edinburgh, 1713-1784; SN 387, oil on canvas
By Allen Miller.
April 11, 2000
Before us we see Mary Lillian Scott, a young woman, standing erect, formally, but
not really stiffly. She seems to be in a very grand room of a classical design. She is
wearing a relatively plain black hat and an absolutely stunning dress of silvery-gray silk
with lace trim and a blue bow. It almost
seems like you could feel the stiffness, the weight of the silk and hear the hiss of the
silk brushing against her petticoats as she rearranges her skirt. The light falls on a
small area in the center of the canvas, highlighting Marys face, shoulders and the
upper portions of her skirt giving the subject of the portrait the attention she
deserves. The fact that the subject is approximately life size and regards us from the
forward edge of the space in which she stands enhances the reality of the scene.
portrait, particularly the areas of the face and hands, is executed with incredible care
to detail. The artist, Allan Ramsay, worked so painstakingly that it is virtually
impossible to tell where one brush stroke ends and another begins. What we see, even upon
the closest inspection, is a smooth, soft face bathed in light.
contrast that with the way Marys skirts have been painted. If you take a closer look
you suddenly see something completely different. Those elegant folds of silk are painted
with big, fat, thick, rough brush strokes that seem to have been laid on with a
housepainters brush. What an incredible illusion: the artist has changed
two-dimensional canvas into three-dimensional silk so real you think you can feel and hear
it. All with a few almost violent swipes of
the paint brush.
portrait of Mary is natural and honest. She is not idealized. She is who she is, the
proper, cultured, elegant, slim, youthful, handsome, but far from beautiful daughter of a
wealthy Scottish family.
Ramsay, the leading portraitist of his time in England, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in
1713. He was very much a man of his age.
father (also Allan Ramsay) was a leading Scottish poet. Growing up in the midst of the
thriving intellectual community of Edinburgh, and encouraged by his father, he showed
early talent, producing, at the age of fifteen, a pencil drawing was used as the
frontispiece for a volume of his fathers poetry.
studying in London for four years he left for the required grand tour of the
continent in 1736, stopping briefly in Paris and later enduring shipwreck off of Pisa on
the way to Rome and Naples. In Italy he
studied with several masters (including Imeriali, Batoni and Solimena) while earning a
living painting the portraits of the many Englishmen on the grand tour.
returning to London he encountered rapid recognition and success. At first his style had a
touch of the baroque picked up from his teachers in Italy, but it was overwhelmingly
natural, empirical, a result of the intellectual trend to observe and record honestly. His
style becomes more and more natural, frank and honest, focusing on his ability to make his
sitters living individuals, while maintaining an elegant design to his work. His later
works from the mid-1760s are characterized by an increasing simplicity and an
incredible subtlety of light.
direction of this evolution makes sense if you consider Ramsay had a lifelong association
with a wide array of the leading artists and intellectuals of his time (William Aikman,
David Hume, Adam Smith [Select Society], William Hogarth, Samuel Johnson, Jean Jacque
Rousseau and Voltaire). He wrote extensively on a variety of subjects including
aesthetics, politics and literature (most famous work was Dialogue of Taste,
published in 1751).
love of drawing and his ability to do it extraordinarily well - would stick with
him throughout his life. It was common for him to make extensive preliminary drawing of
various areas of his canvases before beginning his work in oils.
- He was
a major influence on an entire generation of English portraitists, including Raeburn,
Gainsborough and Reynolds (later his primary rival) all of whom are exhibited in gallery
1761 became the primary painter to King George III of England, a position he held until he
crippled his arm falling from a ladder in 1773 ending his professional career.
spent the last ten years of his life writing, traveling and even resumed drawing during
two trips to Italy. He died in 1784.
- Perhaps because he remained aloof from the Royal Academy and the Society of
Artists, and perhaps because he was a Scotsman, he fell into obscurity soon after his
death. His reputation only became resurrected after World War II. This makes John Ringlings acquisition of
this exquisite portrait all the more admirable.