An unrecorded portrait of Tom Roberts's friend, and his erstwhile fellow student at the NGV School, Louis Abrahams, probably painted in Roberts's then studio at 95 Collins Street East: "Abrahams did not have a studio in 1886, so Roberts' portrait of him was almost certainly painted in Roberts' own studio. Roberts, who worked part-time arranging background for portrait photographs, and was up with current European ideas about portraiture, would have arranged this cramped corner of the studio with attributes appropriate to his sitter: a green umbrella for outdoor painting, outdoor sketches (some of them on cigar box lids supplied by Abrahams who was a cigar manufacturer and merchant) and, gesticulating for our attention, the study of a man wearing a short cloak or spacious jacket, waving wildly with both arms. .... The painting technique is finicky and precise on face, hands, costume and at the edges of forms, and broad and suggestive within the forms, which is typical of Roberts. The colour scheme with its neutral beiges and greys enlivened by small green and blue accents, is dominated by red, the colour Roberts especially favoured in those years. Red is pervasive in works such as Twenty minutes past three, 1886 and An autumn morning, Milson’s Point, 1888 (painted while Roberts was in Sydney for the Abrahams’ marriage), and red provides the main colour accent in The sculptor’s studio, 1884-85 and Shearing the rams, 1888-90 — and the list names only a few works that had red as their colour theme. The insistent planarity of the composition, divided into larger and smaller rectangles, was distinctive to Roberts (and Conder) in 1880s Melbourne. The portrait’s composition of flat rectangular patches of colour and the interpretation of the sitter via setting are reminiscent of Manet’s 1868 already famous portrait of Emile Zola which Roberts, (already an ardent fan of Whistler), may have seen soon after Manet’s death, in the January 1884 retrospective at the École des Beaux Arts. (Mary Eagle, private communications, 27 May and 13 July 2015)
The inscription, now almost invisible beneath a dark varnish (see enhanced detail illustrated), sees Roberts addressing (punning) and spelling his sitter in Spanish, recalling his pilgrimage to Spain in 1883. His nickname 'Don' originally, according to his family, referred to his dark colouring (from his sephardic heritage). The practice of dedicating the work may also have been taken from Roberts' continental travels, and was particularly fashionable among young artists in France in the mid-1880s, especially the avant-garde in Cormon's studio, as a declaration of their artistic brotherhood and common beliefs.
The studio is set with props which are typical of the aesthetic of the time: almost identical furniture (the screen, wicker chair, Turkish rug) adorns the similarly red-washed newly built studio of the Portuguese painter Arturo Loureiro in the Melbourne suburb of Kew in 1890, as painted by Arthur Montague (NGV). As pointed out by Eagle, the format of the portrait may have been influenced by Zola's portrait of Manet, which depicts the sitter's métier and interests via surrounding props: Zola posed in Manet's studio with his writing implements, a print of Manet's Olympia, and Spanish and Japanese art propped up beside him, further assertions of their shared credo.
On his return to Melbourne from Europe in 1885, Roberts's moved to a studio on Collins Street east, adjacent to George Rossi Ashton and John Mather, above the framer John Thallon. Mather, Roberts and Abrahams introduced themselves to etching that year (Abrahams had a number of etchings by Mather which have remained in the family's collection), and Abrahams showed an etching "after J Mather" at the inaugural exhibition of the Australian Artists' Association in September, 1886. Roberts too produced his first etching in January 1886, and exhibited one at the Buonarotti Club in April. A few prints are seen propped up, amongst oil sketches (probably plein air sketches from their weekend camps out at Box Hill that summer), to the right of the sitter. At the same time, both Abrahams and Mather (a landscape artist) took lessons in portraiture from Roberts. Mather's portrait of Abrahams at his easel painted in 1887 from the Abrahams family collection sold in these Rooms, 26 September 2013, lot 16, is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Roberts moved to William Street in 1887, and rented a house at Beaumaris with Abrahams and McCubbin for the early summer. Both he and Abrahams took studios at the new purpose-built Grosvenor Chambers in Melbourne in 1888, and Roberts painted Abrahams' wife, Golda Fig Brasch, there some time after their marriage in Sydney in March 1888 (Mrs L.A. Abrahams, NGV). Roberts was a witness at the wedding. This latter portrait, of the same size, Golda also seated in a wicker chair, was presumably painted as a companion to the present portrait of Louis.
We are grateful to Mary Eagle for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.