Alma-Tadema painted two versions of the present composition in 1882, an oil painting, which was started first and completed on 22 August, and the present watercolour version in reverse, which he completed five days before the oil and numbered with an opus number accordingly.
The oil painting, OP.CCXLIV, entitled Farniente, was sold at Christie's, London on 13 June 2000, lot 40 (£52,875). When it first appeared in the catalogue of Benoit Constant Coquelin in Paris, who commissioned the painting, it was accompanied by a poem from an unidentified poet. The poem tells of Läis, a courtesan celebrated for her beauty. Laïs was the inspiration for many artists, including Holbein, whose portrait of the courtesan Magdelana Offenburg as Laïs Corinthiaca hangs in Basle.
The seated figure represented in these two pictures derives from a red-haired figure seated in the background of Alma-Tadema's painting of Sappho and Alcaeus. Sappho and Alcaeus, painted in 1881, was regarded in his day as one of the artist's most successful paintings. It depicts a company of girls, dedicated to the cult of Aphrodite and the Muses, from the island of Lesbos, with Sappho entranced by Alcaeus's recital.
Alma-Tadema's preoccupation with antiquity was inspired by his first visit to Italy on his honeymoon in 1863. Through disciplined self-study and repeated visits to historical sites and museums, he acquired an impressive knowlege of the ancient world. He owned an encyclopaedic collection of over 5,000 photographs, prints and drawings of every conceivable classical artefact and location, that proved an invaluable source for the settings of his pictures. Although nearly three-quarters of his total output was set in antiquity, his subjects were not generally specific historical events but anecdotal or sentimental themes with which his audience could readily identify. The classical subject matter of Dolce Far Niente is also reflected in its presentation in the artist's original tabernacle frame.
Based on a photographic negative of the oil painting, the watercolour was used by Auguste Blanchard for his engraving of 1887 (V. Swanson, op. cit., no. 280). Swanson has pointed out that photography played an important part in the composition of Alma-Tadema's pictures. 'Dupont, whose studio was in the same building as Alma-Tadema's, photographed the painting in one of its later phases of execution, and Alma-Tadema then relied on the photograph for the painting's tonal value, using it to make corrections in oil. The photographer then reshot the picture in its second state. The process might be repeated several times before the completion of a painting. Alma-Tadema continued to use this technique for the rest of his life' (op. cit., p. 33). This may explain why the watercolour and the oil are so similar, except that in the watercolour the flower in the muse's hand is absent and the mountain is more dominant. Alma-Tadema was himself interested in photography, and had a large collection of photographs which is now at the Birmingham University Library, see U. Pohlmann, Alma-Tadema and Photography, in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1836-1912, exh. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, 1996, cat. pp. 111-124.
We are grateful to Dr Vern Swanson, of the Springville Art Musuem, for his help in preparing this entry.