Painting of the month for September 2014

Miss Anna Alma-Tadema

1883. Oil on canvas Royal Academy of Arts, London

Until very recently I only thought of Alma-Tadema’s exotic Oriental images when I heard his name. Canvases of high realism, marble settings of classical architecture, populated by dark, beautiful, toga-wearing women at leisure. This painting exemplifies his talent as a portraitist. However, upon exploring the Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy of Arts I saw this painting for the first time. I instantly felt drawn to it, and when I discovered the artist was a familiar one I wondered how I had never come across this work.

Alma-Tadema was never meant to be a painter. Following the death of his Father when Lawrence was four, his Mother set about organising his education. He and his siblings were given lessons by a local artist. The eventual plan for him was to be sent to law school. But following a physical and mental breakdown at the age of 15 and diagnosed with consumption he was given a short time to live. And so he was allowed to pursue what he loved, drawing and painting. His health improved and 1852 he was accepted into The Royal Academy of Antwerp. After four years he was apprenticed to artist and Professor Jan de Taeye, who encouraged him to pursue history painting (specifically Merovingian) which would endure as his main passion. After another three years he worked under Belgian painter Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys, where he began his career as a painter in his own right. His first success was The Education of the children of Clovis (1861), which caused a sensation at Artistic Congress in Antwerp. From then on his fame and reputation grew.

One of a handful of portraits is this one of the artist’s daughter. Standing off-centre in ¾ length is Anna, in a doorway of her family home, holding aloft a vase of white flowers. She is just fifteen, but she strikes me as being older, having a mature, wistful sort of look. Perhaps she was an old soul. The door through which she is passing is adorned with portraits of her father and step, their profiles in roundels on the panels. Townshend House, near Regent’s Park was decorated by Lawrence Alma-Tadema ‘to make it appear as much like a Roman villa as was consistent with the peculiarities of the English climate and the comforts of an English home’. Behind her is her step-mother’s studio, telling us about her family’s artistic legacy and her future as a painter. Anna herself wears a rather dull pleated dress, cinched by a wide silky band. She wears a necklace made of seashells and a golden bangle. Her pale face, with her dark hair drawn back, doesn’t wear an expression. As if the portrait was unexpected. Her large brown eyes are wide, looking right at us and her mouth is slightly parted. She looks like her father, her eyes and nose are his, but her face is longer. To me she looks ethereal, both innocent and sad, a sort of blank expression behind which there is a knowing which we cannot reach.

Her mother died when she was two years old, and it is clear that she latched onto her father. She became an apprentice under him, becoming a watercolour artist and adopting his Classicist tendencies. Her paintings are mainly of interiors at Townshend House, scenes of domesticity and privacy. The scenes are tender and revealing, always depicted with exquisite detail, and filled with creativity and artistically inspiring objects from Europe and the Orient. There is a very strong Romantic/Aesthetic feel her paintings, and too to this portrait. Very little is known about Anna as a person, and that makes this portrait all the more compelling. However she does appear in a few of Tadema’s other works, including This is Our Corner (1873) with her sister, and A Sculpture Gallery (1874). One of the few publications including her, Artistic Circles: Design and Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement, describes her as a “precocious teenager”, making her painting sound like a mere hobby. From the few images of Anna’s accessible online is seems she, like most Victorian women artists, struggled to get the reputation she so clearly deserved. But from this portrait, which I think tells us so much about her, perhaps that wasn’t most important to her. After her father’s death in 1912 Anna stopped painting and faded into obscurity.

"Miss Anna Alma Tadema, by Laurens Alma Tadema" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Your Paintings. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_by_Laurens_Alma_Tadema.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Miss_Anna_Alma_Tadema,_by_Laurens_Alma_Tadema.jpg