The Alma-Tadema Ladies. Part 1 – The Two Wives, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard and Laura Epps.

Laurens Alma-Tadema (1870)

In My Daily Art Display (June 21st, 2011) I wrote about the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema and one of his paintings. My next two blogs are focusing on the some of the extraordinarily talented women in Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s life.  In Part 1,  I am looking at Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s two wives.

Pauline in Pompeii by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1863)

Laurens (Lawrence) Alma-Tadema was born in January 1836 in the small Dutch town of Dronrijp which lies in the province of Friesland. On September 24th 1863, at the age of twenty-seven he married a French lady, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard in Antwerp City Hall and the couple went on honeymoon to Italy and it was during that celebratory period that he visited Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii and became interested in the life during the days of ancient Greece and Rome and he acquired a life-long interest in classical archaeology and architecture and soon began to acquire a reputation as a painter of historical subjects, particularly of Greek and Roman antiquity.

My Studio (also known as The aesthetic viewn -Madame Dumoulin, Pauline and Laurense) by Laurens Alma-Tadema (1867)

The couple settled in Paris in 1864 and two years later the couple moved to Brussels, where their daughters were born. The couple had three children. A son, who died of smallpox at the age of six months, and two daughters, Laurense in August 1865, and Anna Alma in 1867. Marie-Pauline, who had health problems for several years finally succumbed to smallpox on May 28th 1869 at the young age of thirty-two. Laurens was devastated by the death of his young wife, which left him to bring up his two young daughters.  Marie-Pauline appeared in many of his paintings although he only painted her portrait three times, including an 1867 portrait entitled My Studio, a three-generational work featuring her mother Madam Dumoulin, herself and her daughter Laurense.

The Persistent Reader by Laura Alma-Tadema

Alma-Tadema became very depressed following the sudden death of his wife, and, for four months stopped painting. Concerned about her brother’s declining mental and physical health, his sister Atje came to live with him to help look after his children. Despite this assistance, the health of Laurens Alma-Tadema failed to improve  and so, on the advice of his art dealer friend Ernest Gambart, he travelled to England to seek further medical advice. It was in 1869, whilst in the English capital that he received an invite to visit the house of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown and it was there in that December that he first met  the impressionable and high-spirited seventeen-year-old, Laura Theresa Epps. It has been said that for Alma-Tadema, it was love at first sight, despite the seventeen-year age difference.

Portrait of Laura Theresa Epps (Lady Alma-Tadema) as a Child by John Brett (1860)

Laura was one of four children of Dr George Napoleon Epps, an English homeopathic practitioner and writer and his wife Charlotte. Laura had one brother, John, who became a surgeon and two sisters, Emily and Ellen who also later became painters. The Epps family was part of an artistic circle which included Dante Rossetti and his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown. The children of George and Charlotte Epps had the fortune of being brought up in a wealthy upper-middle class family and their parents were conscious of their role of ensuring their three daughters received the social skills which would bring about a “good” marriage.  One of those skills was the ability to paint. With that in mind all three daughters were tutored in the art of drawing, painting, as well as music. Their eldest daughter Emily received lessons from the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Brett and the middle daughter Ellen was taught by Ford Madox Brown. Initially Laura was happy to concentrate all her teenage efforts on her music but later began to enjoy her art.

This is Our Corner (Portrait of Laurense and Anna Alma-Tadema) by Laurens Alma-Tadema

After Alma-Tadema’s visit to London, he returned to his family home in Antwerp but his stay there only lasted a few months before he took his two daughters and sister, Atje, back to London in September 1870 where he eventually became a British citizen. So why the sudden return to England? It was probably an amalgam of three reasons. Firstly, in July the Franco-Prussian War had started and there was no knowing how far that was going to spread. Secondly, Alma-Tadema’s paintings were selling well in London and it made sense to position himself close to the buyers of his works and thirdly he was in love with Laura Epps and wanted to pursue her romantically.  Alma-Tadema spoke of his decision:

“…”I lost my first wife, a French lady with whom I married in 1863, in 1869. Having always had a great predilection for London, the only place where, up till then my work had met with buyers, I decided to leave the continent and go to settle in England, where I have found a true home…”

On arrival in London he called on Laura. An insight into what happened at that meeting was given by Laura’s niece Sylvia Gosse:

“…The second time Alma-Tadema saw the young woman, he is said to have asked in his broken English: ‘Vy have I never seen any of your paintings? I know the work of both your sisters and dey are very goood [sic]!’ To which Laura replied, ‘You haven’t seen any because I haven’t done any! I am not a painter I am a musician.’ ‘I’m sure you be able to draw and paint,’ countered Alma-Tadema. ‘Vy not let me give you some lessons. I shall teach you how to paint…”

Laura agreed to be tutored by Alma-Tadema. The couple grew closer and, soon after, he asked her father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Dr Epps was very unhappy with the liaison considering that Alma-Tadema was thirty-four and his youngest daughter was only eighteen years of age. Eventually he relented but with the proviso that they got to know each other better and didn’t rush headlong into a “fixed partnership”. Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Laura Therese Epps married in July 1871.

Self-portraits of Alma Tadema and Laura Epps, (1871)

To commemorate their wedding Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Laura each painted a self-portrait, and the two were united by a replica of a Roman frame and hidden behind walnut shutters painted with emblems. The portraits are encircled by an inscription in elongated capitals which is evocative of Pompeiian examples and the two portraits are enclosed by doors, painted on which are  two emblems – a Dutch tulip on Lawrence’s side, an English rose on Laura’s.

Satisfaction by Laura Therese Alma-Tadema (1893)

The family lived in London in Townshend House, near St. Regent’s Park. In 1886 the family moved to a larger house in Grove End Road, again close to Regents Park, which had been formerly owned by the French painter, James Tissot. Laura not only gained a husband, she also gained two step children,  Anna Alma, then aged four and Laurense, aged six.  She also took on the role of  a proficient hostess at the frequent soirées organised by her and her husband for their friends from the world of art and music. Lawrence Alma-Tadema and his wife became well known on the social circuit, associating with the wealthy upper middle-class society from which his major clients were drawn. She was often asked by her husband to model for his paintings and she also modelled for other artists such as the French sculptor, Jules Dalou and the French realist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage. Besides this work as an artist’s model she was also a very talented painter. She also carried out occasional work as an illustrator, particularly for the English Illustrated Magazine.

The Mirror by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (1872)

In the early years she painted some still life works including the masterful The Mirror in 1872 in which she skilfully depicts a table and the objects placed upon it and she also incorporated a circular mirror on the wall showing a reflection of the artist at work. Paintings with mirror images were popular at the time.

The Tea Party by Laura Therese Alma-Tadema

Laura Theresa also took time to paint portraits of her step-children. One such painting was entitled The Tea Party completed around 1873 and featuring Laurense, the elder daughter of Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

The Bible Lesson by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema

Her artistic style was very like that of her husband’s but instead of depictions of the splendour of Roman bygone days she concentrated on depictions of Dutch interiors with their whitewashed walls and splendid antique oak furniture. They were somewhat idealised portrayals of Dutch life. The works would often include depictions of young mothers with their children both of whom were adorned in seventeenth costumes. Why depictions of life in the Netherlands? It could be that Laura developed a particular interest in this genre due to her husband’s and step-daughters’ origins, or it could have been that she was captivated by the Dutch paintings of the period. One example of this type of work is one entitled The Bible Lesson which also displays her love for Dutch painted tiles of that time.

At the Doorway by Laura Alma-Tadema (1898)

In 1873 Laura Alma-Tadema (later Lady Alma-Tadema) began to exhibit her work at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. Buyers and critics alike praised her work especially in countries such as France where her work was shown at the annual Salon and she was one of only two British women artists to have work accepted for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. Her artwork was very popular in Germany where she received many awards including the gold medal from the German government in 1896, when one of her best pictures was bought by Emperor Wilhelm II.

World of Dreams by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (1876)

In 1876 she completed World of Dreams. Again, we see the type of interior depiction (black and white chequered floor tiles) favoured by Dutch artists such as Vermeer with settings bathed in light streaming through a window and reflections in mirrors. In this painting Laura has portrayed a nurse or maybe a nanny or even a mother who has fallen asleep, possibly from a tiring day looking after the home and children. For comfort and inspiration she has turned to the large illustrated family Bible and the book of Amos but fatigue has won the battle.

In Good Hands by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema

The Dutch artist Vermeer had a great influence on Laura Alma-Tadema, and she was much inspired by the depiction of interiors in his works, which can be seen in her painting In Good Hands. The painting came about when one Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s most faithful patrons, and art connoisseurs and Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henry Marquand, commissioned Lawrence Alma-Tadema to decorate the Music Salon at his new home on Madison Avenue which would act as a focal point for New York Society. The painting by Alma-Tadema’s wife was one of the pictures purchased by Marquand and was hung in his house. The depiction is a domestic scene with a young girl keeping watch over her younger sibling who is sleeping in a large ornate four-poster bed along with his toy windmill. The girl is seen sewing and rests her feet on a foot warmer.

A Family Group by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1896)

An insight into the family life of Laura Alma-Tadema in 1871 can be seen in an 1896 portrait by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, entitled A Family Group, which depicts Laura, her two sisters Emily and Ellen, her brother John and Alma-Tadema himself in the background studying a painting mounted on an easel. The two emblems representing Alma-Tadema and his wife, the tulip and the rose, can be seen on the wooden frame.

On 15 August 1909 Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema’s died at the age of fifty-seven. Lawrence, her husband, was devastated and died three years later.
On her death a newspaper correspondent wrote:

“…Lady Alma-Tadema spent the months of June and July in a German cure, from which she returned a few days ago in a very weak state. She was advised to leave town immediately, and she entered an establishment in Hindhead. Here her malady suddenly took a critical turn on Friday last and she passed away painlessly after an unconsciousness of many hours on the night of Sunday…”


I hope to visit an exhibition next week which is currently on in London at the Leighton House Museum until October 29th entitled At Home in Antiquity which features many paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.   Maybe some of his wife’s and daughter’s works will also be featured.

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Gabriel Metsu. Part 2 – his later life and paintings

Portrait of the Artist with His Wife Isabella de Wolff in a Tavern by Gabriel Metsu (1661)
Portrait of the Artist with His Wife Isabella de Wolff in a Tavern by Gabriel Metsu (1661)

In my last blog I looked at the early life of Gabriel Metsu and had reached the year 1651, the year in which his mother died.  Gabriel Metsu was twenty-one years of age and, as such, was still not looked upon as an adult.  In the Netherlands at that time, adult status was only reached when a person became twenty-five years of age, and for that reason Gabriel came under the guardianship of Cornelis Jansz. and Jacob Jansz. de Haes.  Around this time it is thought that he was advised by a fellow aspiring artist, Jan Steen, to seek employment as an apprentice with Nicolaus Knupfer, a painter from Utrecht.  Metsu remained with Knupfer for a few years during which time he completed a number of religious paintings.

In 1654, his guardianship came to an end and his late mother’s estate was finally settled and Gabriel received an inheritance.  With this newly found wealth, Metsu left Leiden and moved to Amsterdam where he had enough money to set up a workshop in a small house off the Prinsengracht.  He remained there for a short time before moving to a canal-side residence.  It is believed the reason he moved was that he had got into so many arguments with his neighbours for keeping chickens at the rear of his house.

His desire to move to Amsterdam was probably due to his search for artistic commissions as the city had far more opportunities for an artist than that of the smaller town of Leiden.  The other thing that Metsu realised when he arrived in Amsterdam was that small-scale genre scenes were far more popular with art buyers than large scale religious works and so he made a conscious decision to change his painting style and for his inspiration into that art genre, he could study the works of the Leiden painter, Gerard Dou and the Deventer artist Ter Borch.  Metsu’s favourite subjects became young women, often maids, drinking with clients and engaged in domestic work often in tavern settings.

Saint Cecilia by Gabriel Metsu (1663)
Saint Cecilia by Gabriel Metsu (1663)

In May 1658 Gabriel Metsu married Isabella de Wolff who came from Enkhuizen.  Her father was a potter and her mother, Maria de Grebber, was a painter and came from a family of well-known artists.  Metsu had probably met Isabella through his connection with the de Grebber family when he was a teenager.  Anthonie de Grebber, who had given Metsu some early artistic training in those days, was a witness to Metsu and Isabella’s pre-wedding settlement.  They married voor schepenen which means “before magistrates” which presumably meant that the couple did not belong to the Dutch Reformed Church and it is thought more likely that they were both Catholics.  Isabella became one of Metsu’s favourite models and appeared in many of his works.  In 1663 he completed a work featuring his wife, Isabella, as the model for Saint Cecilia.  She is seated playing the viola da gamba.  St Cecilia was a Catholic martyr who was revered for her faithfulness to her husband (note the lap dog) and it could be that Metsu by having his wife model for the martyr was his way of publicly recognising his wife’s fidelity.  This would not have been the first time an artist had used his wife in a depiction of this Catholic saint as in 1633 Rubens completed a painting of St Cecilia in which he used his second wife, Hélène Fourmen,t as the model.  It is entirely possible that Metsu had seen the Rubens’ painting and then decided to use Isabella for his depiction of the martyr.

Gabriel Metsu died in October 1667, just a few months before his thirty-eighth birthday and was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam.  Following the death of her husband Isabella moved back to Enkhuizen to live with her mother, where she died in her late eighties.

A Woman Artist, (Le Corset Rouge) by Gabriel Metsu (1661-4)
A Woman Artist, (Le Corset Rouge) by Gabriel Metsu (1661-4)

Another painting by Metsu, featuring his wife as an artist, was entitled A Woman Artist, (Le Corset Rouge) and is dated 1661-4.  So is this just simply a painting of an artist for which his wife modeled?   Maybe not, for one must remember that Isabella was actually an artist in her own right, having been trained as an artist by her mother, Maria de Grebber, who had come from a family of artists and so this painting by Metsu may just be a loving portrait of his wife, highlighting her talent as a painter.

Do you ever re-read a book or watch the same film more than once?   Many people who do tell of how they saw things in the film or read things in the book the second or third time which they had not picked up the first time and that for them was the joy for re-visiting the work.  Genre works have the same effect on me.  The more times I study them, the more new things I discover which were not apparent during my initial viewing.  I also like the fact that often one cannot take things depicted at face value as there is often a hint of symbolism with the iconography of some of the objects that are dotted around the work and this I find utterly fascinating.  I read art historians’ views on such things and often wonder whether what the artist has added to the work is as symbolic as the historians would have us believe.

In my previous blog about Metsu I talked about certain iconography in the painting entitled Woman Reading a Letter, and was rather scornful with regards the supposed sexual connotation of the abandoned shoe which was prominently depicted lying on the floor.  In my next two featured paintings there is more iconography that has a supposed sexual nuance.  In the next two featured works we see a dead bird being offered to a woman.  Just a mere offering of food?  Maybe not for the Dutch word for bird is vogel and in the seventeenth century the word was synonymous with “phallus” and the Dutch word vogelen, which literally means “to bird”, was slang for “to have sexual intercourse with”.  So when we look at the two paintings we should look at the offer of a bird not as a gift of food but an enticement to have sexual intercourse!

The Sleeping Sportsman by Gabriel Metsu (1660)
The Sleeping Sportsman by Gabriel Metsu (1660)

In the Wallace Collection in London there is a magnificent painting by Metsu entitled The Sleeping Sportsman which he completed between 1658 and 1661.  It is a kind of “hunter’s scene” and it was in this painting that we need to think laterally in as much as the hunt is the gentleman’s hunt of a woman.  In this painting by Metsu the setting is the outside of a tavern. A hunter has called in for a drink after a long day’s shooting.  His gun is propped against a low wall and the two birds he has shot are on view, a pheasant atop the wall and another bird, probably a fowl, is seen hanging from the tree.   Metsu has depicted a lady coming out of the inn with a glass and a jug of alcohol which has presumably been ordered by the hunter-sportsman.   It would appear that the jug she brings him is not his first, as he has passed out from overindulging, and we observe an empty jug lying at his feet.  After a day of hunting game he has decided to end it with a few drinks and search for the company of a female or as the French would say cherchez la femme, but, sadly for him, alcohol has won the day.  Take a careful look at the stupefied hunter.   It is supposedly a self-portrait of the artist.  He lies slumped against the end of a bench, clay pipe in his lap lying loosely against his genitals which could be interpreted as the drunken state he is in has made him temporarily impotent.  On the floor we see the remnants of another pipe which he must have dropped.  Although finely dressed he looks a mess with one of his red gaiters sagging down his leg.

However, if we look again at the woman who is bringing the hunter’s refreshment, we notice that she is not looking at her “customer”, but her eyes are fixed on the man to the right of the painting who is hanging out of the window of the inn.  He looks knowingly out at us.  He is about to take the hunter’s bird from the tree and if we go back to the slang meaning of bird then he may also be also about to take the woman away from the comatose hunter.  On the floor at the feet of the hunter is his hunting dog.  He even looks meaningfully at us, its tail wagging, as if it too sees the funny side of the incident. It is a painting with a moral, warning us of the consequences of inebriation.  Moralistic paintings were very fashionable and popular at the time in the Netherlands.

The Hunter's Present  by Gabriel Metsu  (c. 1658-61)
The Hunter’s Present by Gabriel Metsu (c. 1658-61)

Gabriel Metsu painted a similar work around the same time entitled The Hunter’s Present.  In this work we see a woman in a white dress with a red frock coat trimmed with ermine, again like the female in Woman Reading a Letter, ermine, being expensive,  signified the wealth of the wearer.  The lady is sitting demurely on a chair with a cushion on her lap as an aid to her sewing. She looks to her left at the dead bird the huntsman is offering her.  In this depiction, the hunter is sober.   Now that we know about the bird/vogelen/sexual intercourse implications then we are now also aware what the man maybe “hunting” for.  If we look at the cupboard, behind the lady, we see the statue of Cupid, the God of Love, which gives us another hint that “love is in the air”.  Standing by his master’s side, with its head faithfully on his lap, is a similar spaniel hunting dog we saw in the previous painting.   There are also another couple of additional items of symbolism incorporated in the work, besides the bird offering, that I should draw to your attention.  Look on the floor in front of the woman.  Here again we have the abandoned shoe or slipper and although I was sceptical in my last blog as to its sexual meaning I am starting to believe that it has a symbolic sexual connotation.  So is the woman, because of the abandoned slipper, to be looked upon as a sexually permissive female.  Maybe to counter that argument we should look at her right arm which rests on the table and there, by it, we see a small lap dog, which is staring at the hunter’s dog.  Lap dogs have always been looked upon as a symbol of faithfulness.  So maybe the woman is not as wanton as we would first have believed.  Maybe the hunter is not some unknown man, chancing his luck, but it is a man known to her, maybe her lover and so perhaps the bird symbolism in this case should be looked upon as just a prelude to lovers making love rather than a more sordid prelude – vogelen! .

The Sick Child by Gabriel Metsu (c.1663)
The Sick Child by Gabriel Metsu (c.1663)

The third and final painting by Gabriel Metsu I am featuring is by far one of his most sentimental and poignant.  It is entitled The Sick Child and was completed in the early 1660’s.  Netherlands, like most of Europe had been devastated by the bubonic plague.  Amsterdam was ravaged in 1663–1664, with the death toll believed to be as many as 50,000, killing one in ten citizens and Metsu would have been well aware of the heartbreak and suffering felt by people who had lost their loved ones.

The painting has a dull grey background and the lack of background colour ensures that we are not distracted away from the two main characters.   There is a religious feel about this work.   The reasons for this assertion are threefold.   Firstly the positioning of the mother and child is very evocative of the Pietà, the portrayal of the Virgin Mary holding her son’s lifeless body in her lap, as seen in Italian Renaissance art.  Secondly, the mother is depicted wearing a grey shirt and, as a working woman with a child, one would also expect this but one would have expected her to be also wearing a plain coloured dress but in fact Metsu has depicted her in a royal blue skirt with a red undergarment and these  are the colours of the clothes one associates with Italian Renaissance paintings depicting the Virgin Mary.

Crucifixion painting on back wall
Crucifixion painting on back wall

Finally on the wall we see Metsu has added a painting of the crucifixion.  These three factors go to show that Metsu consciously asks us to compare the circumstances of the Virgin Mary and her dead son with that of this mother and very ill child.  The child, who is drooped in her mother’s lap, looks very ill and this is further underlined by the way the artist has painted her face.  It is pallid and has a deathly blue tinge to it.  The child’s legs fall lifelessly over her mother’s knees.

Tragically, Metsu died very young, at the age of thirty-seven.  He was one of the most popular painters of his era and his paintings fetched high prices.   Many art historians believe Metsu  was one of the greatest of the Dutch Golden Age genre artists and that a number of his paintings were the best of their time.   As I said earlier, although Vermeer is now one of the best loved seventeenth century Dutch painters, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Metsu was far more popular than him, and often Vermeer’s works were attributed to Metsu so that they would sell.  Through Metsu’s works we can get a feel for everyday Dutch seventeenth life.  His earlier genre works focused on the common man and woman but in the 1660’s he concentrated on scenes featuring the better-off Dutch folk, like the letter writer and his beau, and these are the paintings I have focused on in my two blogs featuring Gabriel Metsu.