On 15 September 1888 Vincent van Gogh was intrigued to read an account of an up-to-date artist’s house in the literary supplement of Le Figaro. This described a purple house in the middle of a garden, the paths of which were made of yellow sand. The walls were glass bricks ‘in the shape of purple eggs’.
Such aesthetic dwellings were all the rage; Van Gogh dreamed of having one himself in Arles. But as one learns from an exhibition at Leighton House, it was another 19th-century Dutch artist, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who actually inhabited two such establishments — one off Regent’s Park, the other in St John’s Wood.
On paper, Van Gogh and Alma-Tadema have a great deal in common. The former was born in 1853 in a small village in the south of the Netherlands, the latter, 17 years older and originally christened Lourens, came from Dronryp, a tiny settlement in the extreme north. Van Gogh’s father was a clergyman, Alma-Tadema’s a lawyer. Both were determined to become painters in the face of family opposition.
‘If I have obtained any degree of success,’ Alma-Tadema proclaimed, ‘it is because I have always been faithful to my own ideas.’ Van Gogh was faithful to his, too, but of course he did not enjoy much success before his death in 1890. And that, in fact, is where the comparison ends.
Alma-Tadema’s career was, in worldly terms, as triumphant as an artist’s could possibly be. He died, in 1912, knighted and a member of the Order of Merit, and was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. The other difference was that Van Gogh was a great painter and, as this exhibition demonstrates clearly, Alma-Tadema was not.
Admittedly, he had other talents: as a maker of stylish interiors and as a showman, both of which are investigated in this mini-retrospective, Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity.