Lawrence Alma-Tadema's "Portrait of Sientje": a Technical Examination
In the European galleries of the National Gallery of Canada hangs the portrait of a young woman painted by the highly successful 19th-century Dutch-British artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The woman depicted is the artist’s ﬁrst cousin, Sientje Tadema, a family member of whom the artist was particularly fond and who taught music in his hometown of Dronrijp. The portrait is charming: Sientje regards the viewer with a benevolent expression and the hint of a smile playing on her lips.
Born in the Netherlands and trained as an artist in Antwerp, Alma-Tadema moved to England in 1870, becoming one of the foremost artists of the Victorian era. Celebrated for his highly ﬁnished and romanticized visions of classical Rome, Alma-Tadema was known as a perfectionist who went to great lengths to ensure that every detail was rendered accurately. One frequently shared anecdote, recounted by scholar Rosemary Barrow in her 1998 article on the artist, describes Alma-Tadema’s eﬀorts to achieve the high degree of verisimilitude characteristic of his mature paintings: while painting The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), he had fresh roses shipped weekly from the French Riviera to his London studio, for four months, in order to render the ﬂowers accurately. According to Barrow, he was also known for a sense of playfulness – including covert messages in his paintings that subverted the languid, apparently innocent beauty of the subject matter. While portraiture is not a signiﬁcant feature in his œuvre, he was known to have drawn and painted portraits of family and friends throughout his life, as well as using family members as models for his paintings.
Prior to its acquisition by the Gallery in 2008, Alma-Tadema's Sientje Tadema was examined in the Conservation Department, where its condition was documented and issues that might require conservation treatment in future were identified. Features of the artist's working method and materials were also recorded, to contribute to a better understanding of the painting and its maker.
The painting – executed in oil paint on wood – was unassuming at ﬁrst sight. The sitter’s face is skillfully rendered, with paint applied thinly by brush in a wet-in-wet technique that suggests direct painting from life. The bluish-green paint of the background appears to have been applied prior to the face, with brown accents being subsequently added in a loose, animated manner. One unusual feature was immediately noticeable to the naked eye – a circular shape just above the head of the sitter. The shape was not part of the portrait and suggested the presence of an underlying image. Consequently, the painting was examined using a variety of techniques, the first of which was infrared reflectography.
Infrared reﬂectography has been used in the study of art for many years. It is an essential, non-destructive examination technique that allows the conservator to “see” through the layers of a painting and reveals the presence of underdrawing – a preliminary stage in which the artist works out his composition, prior to painting the image. Traditionally, underdrawing is completed using carbon-based materials, such as charcoal, pencil or black paint. Infrared radiation can pass unabsorbed through most pigmented layers but is readily absorbed by the materials used for underdrawing. When the light is reflected back to the camera, it reveals underdrawing as a dark design against a light, colourless background.
Infrared reﬂectography of the Sientje Tadema portrait revealed not just underdrawing but also an underlying genre scene, including two dogs – one lying down, one sitting up – and a handcart filled with miscellaneous household items. Although technically speaking not an underdrawing, the presence of carbon-based pigments in the genre scene renders it visible using infrared reflectography. It is the right wheel of the handcart that creates the effect of a halo immediately above Sientje’s head. This type of painting – known as a genre scene – is characteristic of 17th-century Dutch art.
While infrared reflectography provided a general idea of the underlying painting, x-radiography was expected to provide greater clarity and detail. The Gallery operates an industrial x-ray facility to produce digital radiographs. Post-processing of digital images – for example, increasing or decreasing density and contrast – allows for optimization of the information captured in the radiograph. In the case of the portrait, the digital image was rotated, brightened and increased contrast in order to optimize viewing of the underlying genre scene.
For those who are not used to looking at x-radiographs of works of art, it is important to remember that a painting is a laminate structure. The laminate typically consists of a primary support layer (such as canvas or wood panel), some form of auxiliary support (for example, stretcher or cradle) and a series of paint layers. Each of these contributes to the final appearance of the x-radiograph, according to the relative density. The thicker and/or more radio-opaque a component is, the lighter the corresponding area of the radiograph. Conversely, the thinner and/or less radio-opaque a component is, the greater the exposure of the imaging plate and the darker the corresponding area of the radiograph.
The edges of the radiograph are relatively dark, suggesting that paint layers at the edges of the painting are thinly applied and/or not significantly radio-opaque. By contrast, the centre of the radiograph –in the area of the flesh tones in the sitter’s face and neck and the lace collar of her dress – is considerably lighter, indicating the presence of paint layers that, while thinly applied, are radio-opaque, meaning they contain an inorganic metallic pigment, such as lead white. Lead white, or basic lead carbonate, is the principal opaque white pigment used throughout history. It can be found in ﬂesh tones, the subtle gleam of satin draperies, dramatic cloud formations and even the tiny ﬂick of light that animates a painted eye. Changes in composition, losses, damage and underlying images, all are revealed thanks to the radio-opacity of lead white.
In the case of the portrait, it allows one to see that the underlying image was selectively scraped down, for example in the area of the sitter’s mouth and chin. This was presumably done to prevent the paint texture of the genre scene from interfering with that of the existing image. Interestingly, Alma-Tadema chose not to scrape down the wagon wheel at right, with the result that it creates the effect of a halo above Sientje’s head.
The grain of the wood panel is clearly visible, both in the radiograph and under normal light. Rays are also visible as smooth, irregular shapes running perpendicular to the grain. Together, these features identify the wood as oak and the cut as radial: in other words, the panel was sectioned from the radius of a log, at right angles to the annual rings. A cut of this nature produces a panel with good dimensional stability that is less likely to warp and split but allows for fewer panels per plank. By the latter part of the 19th century, the supply of quality European oak was limited and the practice of radial cutting was less common. A good oak panel would therefore be of value to a 19th-century artist such as Alma-Tadema, and the artist may have purchased (or been given) an inexpensive 17th- or early 18th-century panel painting speciﬁcally for re-use. Also, the presence of a faint, irregular line of radio-opaque material along the bottom edge of the original painting, together with the presence of a slight bevel on the verso surface of the same side, suggest that this panel may have been cut from a larger panel.
Examination under a stereo-binocular microscope conﬁrmed that the portrait was painted directly onto the genre scene. In fact, some of the colours and compositional elements of the underlying genre scene are discernable in the portrait – for example, the shadow cast by the left front leg of the sleeping dog shows as a transition from light to dark in the bottom right corner of the portrait.
The artist’s subtle use of the underlying genre scene in his portrait of Sientje begs the question did he intentionally use the cartwheel to appear as a halo above Sientje’s head? The incorporation of elements from the genre scene into his portrait certainly speaks to the painting's informal nature. It may also reflect Alma-Tadema’s sense of playfulness and use of covert messages, something that became a feature in his mature paintings. Ultimately, the young Alma-Tadema created an intimate and charming portrait of his cousin, with the suggestion of a halo providing insight into his regard for his cousin and into his playful use of covert messages in his works.
This article is an edited version of Susan Walker's scholarly article, first published in CINDE Journal, Jan–Mar 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.