What’s your favorite Tadema painting and why?
My favourite is whichever painting I’ve been contemplating most recently! Alma-Tadema’s pictorial world is so compelling that it draws you in whenever you look closely. Recently I’ve been looking carefully at In My Studio, which shows a model standing in the alcove of Tadema’s studio. This is a superb example of what I have been calling ‘the studio as laboratory’ – it shows how Tadema used the sumptuous interiors of his own studio space to stimulate his imagination. Is this simply a model, dressed in classical draperies to pose for a picture, and pausing for a moment to enjoy the scent of the roses? Or is she a mysterious visitor from the ancient past, who has somehow come alive in the moody light of the artist’s studio? The artist is representing a scene that could really have happened in his own studio, but he turns it into a magical moment.
Why do you love the work of Alma-Tadema?
I like good, solid painting technique. Slapdash, impressionistic painting – that’s not for me! Tadema’s work is meticulous, painstaking, and supremely refined. But a good technique is not just about fine detail. Tadema was also a superb colourist. Take the portrait of his daughter Anna, painted in 1883 when Anna was about 16. The colours are quite unusual: silver-gray, pale green, the opalescent tints of the girl’s shell necklace and the glint of burnished metal in the vase she carries. But the hues are also perfectly harmonized. We see a teenaged girl, represented with such vivid realism that we feel we are meeting her face-to-face, but the subtle and shimmering colours place her in a fantasy-world of her own.
Do you have a fun fact about one of the paintings or Alma-Tadema himself?
Look for Alma-Tadema’s portrait in the top right-hand corner of his own painting, A Family Group, and in the painting by his wife Laura called Satisfaction. You just get a glimpse of him in a rather shapeless straw hat that he wore in the garden. That hat was still in the family until very recently – when it fell apart from old age.
What are you most looking forward to in this exposition?
The paintings I’ve never seen before! I’ve been studying Alma-Tadema’s work since I was a doctoral student in the late 1980s, and I was one of the curators of the Tadema exhibition of 1996-97, so you might think I’d seen them all – not so! This exhibition will have some paintings that haven’t been seen in public for decades – or even since the artist’s own lifetime. A fascinating example is the portrait of the printmaker Leopold Löwenstam, which was rediscovered this summer – just in time to appear in the exhibition. The exhibition will also feature paintings by Alma-Tadema’s wife, Laura, that show what a great artist she was in her own right.
If you were a character in one of his paintings, who would you be?
I’d like to be a priestess in one of Tadema’s Bacchanalian processions such as A Dedication to Bacchus. I can imagine myself leading the procession, dancing or playing an instrument. I’d be dressed in draperies that would ripple and flow as I moved – with laurel or vine leaves in my hair – and of course I would be drinking the delicious wine of the god Bacchus!