Exhibited at the Royal Water-Colour Society in 1885, together with two studies of dancing figures entitled Oranges and Lanterns, A Yellow Room is a small version of White Hydrangea, a three-quarter lifesize painting shown at the Royal Academy the same year (fig. 1). The whole point of Moore's work lay in making subtle adjustments of form and colour to create pictorial harmonies, so it was inevitable that he thought in terms of variations on a theme and versions of a single composition. On this occasion he seems to have gone out of his way to invite comparisons by exhibiting the two versions simultaneously, rather than, as more often happened, a year or two apart.
Compositionally, the two versions were very similar, the main difference being that in White Hydrangea the spray of the plant which we see on the left in A Yellow Room was much smaller, scarcely breaking the vertical line of the door jamb. Colourwise, however, there were clearly important variations. According to Moore's pupil and biographer, A.L.Baldry White Hydrangea showed
a finely proportioned and daintily modelled girl turning to open a brown door inlaid with iridescent mother-of pearl, and set in a wall decorated with a close pattern in shades of dark warm grey. She wears on her fair hair a black cap, and carries on her shoulder a piece of white drapery, the white repeated about her feet by some hydrangea flowers - whence comes the title. Colour of a stronger kind is suggested at the top of the picture in a sliver chandelier hung with red beads and yellow silk tassels, and at the foot in a floor of green, white and black, half covered by a black mat with yellow fringe, and by a small heap of pink drapery.
In A Yellow Room, on the other hand, the model is posed against a patterned wall of strong golden yellow, on a floor of red, grey and white, and with her hand upon a door painted with the same three colours. The corner of an orange, red, and black rug shows at her feet, and the chandelier above her head is hung with white tassels, and red and white beads.
In arranging the figure, Moore went to great lengths to achieve what Baldry called 'exactly the right turn of the body and the correct placing of the hand upon the door'. Evidence of his pains is provided by a cartoon (fig. 3) in which, as Robyn Asleson has observed, we see 'the familiar grid of curved horizontal and vertical lines, overlaid by a diaper pattern of long intersecting diagonal curves. The contours of the figure were accommodated to this geometric framework, which also determined the disposition of the hydrangeas, the patterned wallpaper, Moore's anthemion, and every other element in the composition.' Nothing in a painting by Albert Moore was left to chance.
Given Moore's obsessive concern for abstract values, it is ironic that many thought the result was too lifelike. 'This figure', wrote a critic in the Builder of White Hydrangea,
is so exactly the type of a modern society young lady, and so exceedingly realistic in her tripping walk, that there is a kind of ludicrous impropriety about it; it is as if we were sitting in a rather aesthetic drawing-room, and the young lady of the house suddenly tripped in, with a little conventional simper on her face, and an unfortunate but entirely innocent forgetfulness of the fact that she had nothing on but her cap.
Others were prepared to go further. Moore had not exhibited a female nude since he had shown A Venus (fig. 2) at the Royal Academy in 1869. That picture had been widely condemned as 'repellent' or 'repulsive', but he may well have thought that a more enlightened attitude now prevailed. After all, the Aesthetic movement had arrived and flourished during the intervening sixteen years.
Alas, any such hopes were doomed; the spirit of Mrs Grundy still stalked the Royal Academy and the Grosvernor Galley as purposefully as ever. On 18 May 1885 White Hydrangea and a number of other R.A. pictures were attacked by an unknown assailant wielding a pin or knife, and a few days later a letter from 'A British Matron' appeared in the Times, inveighing against the indecent display of some two dozen nudes at the Academy and the Grosvernor. This sparked a lively correspondence, in which the pros and cons of nudity in art were hotly debated. Rumour was rife. Some contended that the 'British Matron' was also the wielder of the knife at Burlington House. Others saw in her letter the handiwork of the veteran Academician J.C. Horsley, nicknamed 'Clothes Horsley' because of his well-known antipathy to artists studying the nude. Moore's friend and admirer Whistler was even inspired to inscribe the legend 'Horsley soit qui mal y pense' on a nude he exhibited at the Society of British Artists. Moore himself, characteristically, did not contribute to the debate, merely repairing the damage to White Hydrangea, a task which took him 'a week's hard work'. Fortunately A Yellow Room, being so much smaller and displayed in the relative obscurity of the R.W.S., escaped the fanatic's attention.
The watercolour's first owner was the solicitor James Anderson Rose, who had offices in Salisbury Street, Strand, and a house on Wandsworth Common. Rose was a keen collector of the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic school, as well as of oriental porcelain. He bought extensively from Burne-Jones and Rossetti, for whom he also acted professionally, in the 1860s. This was his only work by Albert Moore.