Marion Hepworth Dixon, 'Lady Alma-Tadema's Pictures', in Studio, vol.50, 1910, illus. p.56
Scenes of children in interior settings were amongst Laura Alma-Tadema's most frequently painted subjects. Here, a young girl with golden ringlets sits perched upon a window sill; her slightly unfocused gaze is directed outwards into the garden as the bright warm sunlight pours inwards and creates dappled patterns within the interior space. Alma-Tadema was particularly adept at portraying her own specific notion of childhood without diverging into the overly sentimental or saccharine, and the present piece is amongst her most quaint and appealing of such works.
In the later half of the nineteenth century, paintings and images of children proliferated, and the period is often noted as a time when childhood was 'rediscovered.' While certain images of children were certainly concerned with sentiment and escapist wishful-thinking, children also became a locus point around which certain fears were focused. In the writings of Dickens, for example, one sees that with the expansion of the urban population, and in particular the expansion of the lower classes, there was a definite concern that children were amongst the most vulnerable and at risk. Childhood became a defined period in need of protection and for the educated middle classes in particular, the home was seen as a sanctuary in which their children could gain refuge from the hostilities of the outside world.
In this sense of domestic sanctuary the present work relates to similar vignettes, and particularly to both Sophie Anderson's No Walk Today (the highlight of the collection of Sir David and Lady Scott, sold in these rooms, 19 November 2008, lot 96) and Holman Hunt's Master Hilary-The Tracer (collection of Lord Lloyd Webber) as in each children are pictured indoors looking outwards. While compositionally linked, each taps into a slightly different idea about childhood during the period. No Walk Today is primarily concerned with the security of childish femininity, and the domestic sphere as a specifically female space. The Victorian viewer would have been reassured by the little girl's wistful stare, knowing she will not be allowed out in such inclement weather. In contrast Master Hilary-The Tracer, is a testament to little boys' boldness and playfulness. He remains indoors out of his own volition, due to his chosen endeavour. The little boy's garb suggests he has recently been engaged in some spirited game of make-believe and he is an active presence, his stance daring and his gaze assured. The present work is again slightly different, the young girl looks outwards, but it is not with a sense of disappointment or longing. Instead Alma-Tadema provides the viewer with a window into the personal private world of the child, who appears to be indulging in a daydream.
Both No Walk Today and Master Hilary- The Tracer- epitomize the ideals of Pre-Raphaelite execution. Each physical detail is observed and recorded with equal clarity and the utmost precision, from the droplets which hang on the window pains, to the antennae of the tiny butterfly, to the definition of each individual leaf and stem. The pigments are intense and saturated, the elements tightly painted. It is here that Alma-Tadema's work departs slightly, and the influence of Dutch seventeenth century painting, which she was drawn to throughout her career, emerges. Not only is the little girl dressed in seventeenth century Dutch costume, with her snug bonnet, satin lemon yellow dress, and pinafore bordered with delicate lace, but the luminous colour palette, looser, more painterly application, dramatic lighting, low viewpoint and cropped composition are all vaguely reminiscent of the genre paintings of Johannes Vermeer. The focus on the domestic details, from the pattern of the fabric on the seat of the chair to the fruit the little girl holds absently in her hand, also recall the golden age of Dutch painting.
Commenting on Laura's taste for all things Dutch, Alice Meynell wrote; 'In the details of domestic life, Dutch habits, Dutch furniture, and Dutch dress of the gentler and more courtly sort in the seventeenth century, Mrs Alma-Tadema has found unconventional, honest and homely grace... The Artist has surrounded herself by relics and remains of the time and the country she loves, the costumes of which are doubtless more interesting to her than the characterless fashion of her own day, whether in dress or furniture; and thus her pictures seem to produce within a genuine little Holland, in a genuine seventeenth century...' (Art Journal, 1883, p.345).
Laura Alma-Tadema incorporated her love of Holland into her daily life with her husband Lawrence Alma-Tadema, himself a Dutchman, who moved to London following the couple's meeting in 1869. Having married eighteen-months later, the couple first lived near Regents Park and later moved to 17 Grove End Road, St John's Wood in 1886. Laura sought to decorate the space in which the couple lived with an eclectic mix of furnishings and artefacts. The interior and garden depicted in the present work is likely that of the couple's home in Grove End Road. The home was previously occupied by James Tissot, prior to his departure from London following the death of Kathleen Newton in 1882. The garden colonnade visible in the present work appears in several of Tissot's paintings, and was built by the artist himself.
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