Oil on panel
23 x 18 inches (58.5 x 46 cm)
Framed: 38 x 26 inches (96.5 x 66 cm)
Signed: Alma Tadema 1869/Bruxelles
Commissioned from the artist in 1869 by Ernest Gambart
John Paton, Stirling by whom sold, Christie’s, London, 14 July 1906, lot 78, as In the Garden
William Permain, London by whom sold to W.C. Robinson
Frederick Muller & Co., Amsterdam, 13 November 1906, lot 4, as En fleurs jardin; Mak, Amsterdam, 13 June 1961, lot 141
A. Staal, Amsterdam, acquired at the above sale
Christie’s, New York, October 27, 1982, lot 296, where purchased by the previous owner
Carl Vosmaer, Catalogue Raisonné of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, c.1885, no.90
Rudolf Dircks, The Later Works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A., The Art Journal, Christmas Issue, 1910, p.27
M. Viola, Laurens Alma-Tadema, van Onzen Tijd, Jaargang XII, no. 39, 1912, illustrated p.625
Vern G. Swanson, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Painter of the Victorian Vision of the Ancient World, 1977, p.136
Vern G. Swanson, The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1990, p. 154, no. 115, illustrated p.325, no. 115(ii) (and in color p. 450 with incorrect catalogue number)
Laurens Alma Tadema was born in 1836 in Holland. His parents thought art was no profession for a gentleman, and consequently, he actually worked himself into tuberculosis studying art and law at the same time. He became a British citizen, a Royal Academician and was knighted by Queen Victoria.
In 1863, Alma-Tadema and his first wife Pauline left Antwerp for an Italian honeymoon; visits to Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii would motivate a turn from the artist’s Merovingian (European medieval) subjects of the early 1860s to compositions like A Greek Woman, inspired by Antique culture and its art and artifact. That same year, Alma-Tadema drew the attention of Ernest Gambart, the powerful, London-based Belgian art dealer with representation throughout Europe. The relationship became so profitable—both financially and artistically—that Gambart and Alma-Tadema agreed to a commission of over seventy paintings, including A Greek Woman.
As suggested by our painting’s inscription, Bruxelles, Alma-Tadema completed this piece in the city he made his home after 1865 and where he completed the first of a series of pictures of ancient Roman life. A prevalent theme in these compositions was the luxurious, sensory pursuits of the Ancients —such as a lovely Greek woman taking a stroll in the garden. While the vibrant red of the garden wall here is similar to the Pompeian interiors of Alma-Tadema’s work of the late 1860s, the fresco is an accurate recreation of a wall painting of cavalrymen and foot soldiers from Nola (near Naples) dating from 330-320 BC, though it remains unclear exactly when and how the artist first saw it. The tomb painting had been discovered in the mid-eighteenth century, and was first on public view by 1768 in the Borbon collections at the Real Museo di Capodimonte, Naples and then, by the artist’s first Italian trip, at the city’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale. If Alma-Tadema did not see the paintings first-hand, he very likely knew them from reproductions; the artist held a collection of over 5,000 photographs of archeological ruins and artifacts kept in European museums, as well as a comprehensive library of classical texts and volumes of archaeology. Moreover, Alma-Tadema also recorded the wall painting in a watercolor (included in Portfolio 80 of the artist’s archives kept at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham).
While today the wall painting reproduced in our picture is understood to be from Nola, Alma-Tadema believed it to originally come from Poseidonia, a major nearby Greek colony founded in the 7th century BC, on the Tyrrhenian coast. Poseidonia became the Roman colony of Paestum in 273 BC and, while abandoned by late antiquity, several of its ancient temples and many of its tomb and wall-paintings survived. Alma-Tadema’s knowledge of Paestum is also suggested by our painting’s cultivated rose garden. By 29 BC, Virgil referenced the beauty of Paestum and its “twice-blooming” roses, which were sent north to Rome so the citizens could enjoy blooms all winter. The flowers also likely provided our painting’s alternative name, En fleurs jardin, used when it was auctioned at Frederick Muller, Amsterdam in November 1906. When illustrated in the same sale’s catalogue, it is shown with a bare wall, the rose garden serving as the primary decorative motif. As Dr. Vern G. Swanson explains in his catalogue raisonné, while it is possible A Greek Woman may have been reworked after 1906, the complexity of the fresco design makes it more likely the panel had been photographed in an early state before it was completed.