The artist's correspondence to Deschamps, March 13, 1885
Academy, May 2, 1885, p. 318
"The Grosvenor Exhibition," The Athenaeum, no. 3000, April 25, 1885, p. 540
Henry George Blackburn, Grosvenor Notes, 1885, p. 16
The Year's Art, London, 1886, p. 57, illustrated
Helen Zimmern, "L. Alma Tadema Royal Academician: His Life and Works," Art Journal, Christmas Supplement, 1886, p. 19, illustrated p. 24
Art Journal, 1886, illustrated
Fedor Il'ich Bulgakov, Alma Tadema, Petrograd, 1897, pp. 25, 27, illustrated
Rudolf Dircks, "The later works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema O.M., R.A., R.W.S.," Art Journal, supplementary monograph, Christmas issue, December 1910, p. 31
Vern G. Swanson, Alma-Tadema, The Painter of the Victorian Vision of the Ancient World, New York, 1977, p. 139 (with incorrect dimensions)
Vern Swanson, The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, London, 1990, pp. 224-5, no. 300, illustrated p. 424 (with incorrect dimensions)
Standing tip-toe on a richly upholstered bench, a woman grasps the top of a high wall, peering over the edge at the view below. The scene spied by this woman is a mystery both to her two seated companions and the viewer of Alma-Tadema's composition, begging the title Who is It? Sequestered in this intimate picture space, without a specific mythological, historical, or narrative source, the trio is part of a visual riddle. While the activity of the outside world is hidden from them, the beauties themselves become the source of the viewer's questioning gaze. The space has few ornaments or objects, save for the bronze colored object hanging from a column (though difficult to determine, it possibly holds a small sculpture bust looking out toward the women). This sparseness affords an intense focus on the shifting colors of veined marble, the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean sky, and the tactile contrasts of cool stone hidden by deep shadow and the warm sun splashing across the shoulders of the woman's ivory costume. The naturalism of the composition—from the figures' pose to the surface textures—was greatly admired upon its exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885. In particular, the Athenaeum's critic considered Who is It? "a capital illustration of the spontaneous movement and homogeneous treatment which enable the artist to make pictures out of any material" ("The Grosvenor Exhibition," p. 540).
Who Is it? was commissioned by Charles Deschamps, nephew of the famous London dealer Ernest Gambart, an important force in the growth of the nineteenth century art market. While it is not yet known if Deschamps intended Who Is It? for a particular client, his roster during the time was particularly impressive. Deschamps was responsible for introducing Alma-Tadema to many of his most important patrons in Europe and America. Outside of the realm of powerful dealers and wealthy collectors, Alma-Tadema's works had an important influence on popular culture. The artist's beautiful models, in their classical costume, also inspired contemporary fashion. Works like Who is It? allowed a close, carefully detailed study of "exotic" costumes with their long, architectural folds and ties, loose drape over soft body and unique color palette. In the late nineteenth century, dresses made by Liberty of London "a la Tadema" were quite popular and American women loved to lounge in so-called "Tadema Togas" (Swanson, Alma Tadema, p. 28).
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