Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Dutch/British, 18361912)
The Staircase, 1870
Oil on panel, 16 3/4 x 3 3/4 in.

Alma Tadema was the pre-eminent painter of classical genre scenes. Full of accurate archeological details, his pictures generally focused not on dramatic events, but on domestic scenes and daily life. Such paintings were quite popular with the Victorian public, who saw in them an ancient, costumed reflection of their own bourgeois lives.

The Staircase was submitted by the artist as a lottery prize to a London exhibition for the benefit of the “Distressed French Peasantry” in districts occupied by the German army during the Franco-Prussian war (187071). Alma Tadema posed himself a formidable challenge in dealing with such an unusually shaped panel. His decision to paint four women in Roman dress ascending a marble staircase results in a striking image. The painting is in its original frame, which to certain extent forms part of the composition. The two classical columns expand upon the implied architectural space and compensate for the narrow width of the panel. Together, the starkly elongated format, the figures seen from the back, and the generic title all construct an enigmatic image that has true cinematographic qualities. The manner in which several figures are cut off in the composition, as well as their graceful poses, suggest knowledge of Japanese art, which was extremely popular in Europe at the time, mainly in the form of prints.

Published in: Roger Diederen, Telling Tales I. Classical Images from the Dahesh Museum of Art (New York, 2001)