This exceptionally delicate drawing was observed from life in preparation for Ramsay's famous portrait of his second wife, Margaret Lindsay. Here, Ramsay was studying how the fall of light affected the appearance of the hand, and where the shadows and highlights emerge to make the forms appear fully three-dimensional. Ramsay was a master portrait painter, who captured the refinement and grace of his sitters. Vast quantities of his preparatory drawings survive. The National Gallery owns around sixty of his studies of hands, and they all display a consistent concern for elegance, delicacy and detail. He made a number of small but significant changes to this hand when he came to recreate it in paint.
Ramsay produced this drawing just after he and his wife returned to Scotland from his second visit to Italy. In Italy Ramsay made numerous drawings, including studies after the old masters, in an attempt to integrate something of their gracefulness into his own work. Ramsay’s drawing style became more delicate and precise, which was often lost when the image was replicated in paint. He also attended the French Academy in Rome where he practiced drawing from life. Following his Italian experience, Ramsay painted a number of exceptionally delicate female portraits. This drawing shows his interest in capturing the detail and elegant pose of his sitters, which he achieved through a remarkably economic use of line.
Ramsay, named after his father who was a poet, was internationally renowned for his outstanding portraits. He attended the new Academy of St Luke in Edinburgh and then continued his artistic education in Italy. He visited Rome, studying at the French Academy and Naples. British residents commissioned many portraits from him and as soon as he returned to London he established a successful studio. He also returned to Edinburgh regularly. King George III appointed him King's painter. As a gifted conversationalist and writer of essays, Ramsay pursued his scholarly interests when injury to his right arm in 1773 cut short his painting career.