Ralph Hamilton

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 9, 2006

He was an avid reader, especially of Roman history, and poetry. (John Donne was a distant ancestor.) Some of his early paintings included words (“AWAY,” “GET WELL”), but he had little patience with words (or any art) that didn’t speak to him. Six of his Fourteen People, a series of life-size standing figures, are poets (among them Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Gail Mazur, Joyce Peseroff, and Margo Lockwood). He did the covers for poetry books (including my own three), the Elizabeth Bishop bibliography, and a number of issues of Ploughshares. His eloquent portrait of Ella Fitzgerald was on the cover of Parnassus.

In 1985, David Bonetti, now the art critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote in these pages:

At the end of each century Boston has had a portrait painter of great interpretive gifts — Copley in the 18th, Sargent in the 19th, and now, I’d argue, Hamilton in the 20th. . . . The subjects of Copley and Sargent were the aristocracy of their times — merchants and their wives. Hamilton’s subjects are fellow artists and Intellectuals, a reflection of the change in values our society has undergone. Like his predecessors, though, he is creating one of those invaluable records that tell what a historical period was about.

These portraits certainly aren’t conventional. Most of them are based on his selection of one of the 20 or 30 bad snapshots he insisted on taking himself. (His other paintings are based mainly on published photographs.) One portrait is so close up, it looks more like a landscape than a face. When his subject saw the finished painting, she asked, “Where’s my hair?” Bea Arthur seemed delighted to have her portrait done until Ralph practically stuck his camera up against her nose to photograph her. “What the hell is this,” she bellowed, “an ad for facial hair?” He got only four photos before she stormed away, but one of them worked. He always said that these faces were in “conversational distance.” The painting was finished when the faces looked as if they were speaking to him.

He had a unique technique. He’d map out his images on the canvas, paper, or masonite like a topography, then “fill in the blanks,” he would say, “like paint by numbers.” Then the real work would begin. While the paint was still wet, he’d start to brush it away. He’d turn the painting on its side, then upside down, and brush and brush. Suddenly, a three-dimensional image would emerge — and not just three dimensions. This brushwork suggests animation, movement, passage through time. The images seem to come alive as you’re looking at them. His painting of Jonathan Swift’s death mask is disturbing in its very vitality. But scariest of all are his devastating and uncompromising self-portraits. “Every painting is a self-portrait,” he said years ago. His self-portraits, over more than three decades, are among his most powerful paintings. Did he see himself in his recent image of a solitary ice-shagged buffalo?

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