McEvoy’s sketchy and experimental approach to watercolour sometimes resulted in the presumption that some of his works were left unfinished. The present work is an excellent example of this purposely loose sketching; the background is rendered in soft, subtle strokes and the initial pencil sketching is plainly evident towards the bottom of the paper. Whilst many of his watercolours showcase dramatic and dynamic brushstrokes, this portrait engenders a subtler approach to watercolour. McEvoy is careful not to overwork the medium, and here celebrates its wash-like quality. McEvoy’s understanding of colour was immensely intuitive. The clever implementation of contrasting colours, blue and orange, used to render the two figures affords them both a prominent position. Whilst the cool tones of the foregrounded figure echoes those of the background, the orange subtly brings forth the second figure, who might otherwise have been lost within the composition. This work is from a series of watercolour studies of ballet dancers painted by McEvoy between...

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McEvoy’s sketchy and experimental approach to watercolour sometimes resulted in the presumption that some of his works were left unfinished. 

The present work is an excellent example of this purposely loose sketching; the background is rendered in soft, subtle strokes and the initial pencil sketching is plainly evident towards the bottom of the paper. Whilst many of his watercolours showcase dramatic and dynamic brushstrokes, this portrait engenders a subtler approach to watercolour. McEvoy is careful not to overwork the medium, and here celebrates its wash-like quality.

McEvoy’s understanding of colour was immensely intuitive. The clever implementation of contrasting colours, blue and orange, used to render the two figures affords them both a prominent position. Whilst the cool tones of the foregrounded figure echoes those of the background, the orange subtly brings forth the second figure, who might otherwise have been lost within the composition.

This work is from a series of watercolour studies of ballet dancers painted by McEvoy between 1913 and 1914. Another work from this series, Two Ballet Dancers with Dresser, is in the collection at the Tate and includes the same central seated figure as seen in the present work.[1] Another work, Study for ‘The Dancers’ was illustrated in a short monograph on McEvoy published in 1924.[2]

The present work remained in McEvoy’s possession until 1917 when it was donated a prize to a picture lottery organised by The Chelsea Art Union. Tickets could be purchased for five-shillings and the proceeds went to St Dunstan’s Hostels for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors. The present work was one of the highlights of the lottery and received a lot of attention in the press - ‘I want Mr McEvoy’s ‘Ballet Girls’, wrote one critic in Vogue Magazine.[3]


Biography


Ambrose McEvoy demonstrated his exceptional artistic abilities from a young age. Encouraged by his father, Captain Charles Ambrose McEvoy, and inspired by his father’s great friend, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, McEvoy enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art at the age of sixteen.[4] He studied at the Slade between 1893 and 1898 and afterwards rented a small flat in Danvers Street, Chelsea, where he lived and worked.

McEvoy soon established himself as a gifted genre painter; he explored rolling landscapes and intimate interior scenes whilst attracting attention from wealthy patrons and collectors. During the mid-1910s, McEvoy ventured increasingly towards portraiture and the demand for his portraits rose concurrently.

In 1915 he exhibited his famous work Madame at the National Portrait Society and the following year he was commissioned to paint portraits of several prominent society figures including Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough and Maude Baring. These high-profile commissions gained McEvoy considerable recognition and firmly established his position as a fashionable portrait painter.

However, as with many artists, his career was interrupted by the First World War and in 1918 he was attached to the Royal Naval division as a war artist and posted to the Western Front and the North Sea.[5] Whilst there, McEvoy painted a number of portraits of military commanders, many of which are now in the collection at the Imperial War Museum.

In the years following the First World War, McEvoy’s career and reputation grew from strength to strength and he was soon heralded as one of the most successful and fashionable English society portrait painters of his day. His innovative style and florid methods endeared an emerging generation of young, wealthy and liberal-minded patrons. His famed depictions of human character and beauty, particularly of women, became sought after and he maintained an illustrious list of clients spread between the United Kingdom and America, where he was represented for a period by the most celebrated international art dealer of the day, Lord Duveen.[6]

However, this youthful success was to take its toll on McEvoy and he died in 1927, aged forty-nine. Critics writing shortly after his death were in little doubt as to the significance of his work; ‘the most refined aspect of early twentieth century society will live on in his work, and that alone ensures his position in history’.[7]

To this day, he has become famed for his depiction of women. In his obituary in The Times he was praised for his ability to paint female subjects in a manner that was both visually appealing, but also bespoke the profundity of his ‘thoughts about human beauty, particularly feminine beauty’.[8]

[1] N05217

[2] Gleadowe, R.M.Y. (1924) ‘Ambrose McEvoy’ in Rutherston, A. (ed.) Contemporary British Artists: Ambrose McEvoy. London: E. Benn, pl. 29.

[3] Anon. June 1917. Vogue.

[4] E. A. Akers-Douglas, (ed.) L. Hendra, Divine People: The Art & Life of Ambrose McEvoy, (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2019) p.28.

[5] Akers-Douglas, (ed.) Hendra, Divine People, p.24.

[6] Akers-Douglas, (ed.) Hendra, Divine People, p.176.

[7] “Ambrose McEvoy”, Country Life, vol. 13, issue 1619, 28th January 1928, p. 106.

[8] "Mr. Ambrose McEvoy." The Times (London), 5th January 1927, p. 12.

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500 Years of British Art