A World in a Room: Reflections on Works from the Eugene Thaw Collection

by mitchellgallery

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study, Townshend House, Anna Alma-Tadema (English, 1865–1943).  London, 1884. Brush and watercolor, gouache, pen and brown and black ink, graphite on white paper

Many of the watercolor drawings from the Thaw Collection were commissioned to commemorate the opulent bedrooms, salons, and libraries of the wealthy. But despite the fact that they were intended to be faithful reproductions, these works, for all their meticulous detail, do not simply record an interior. Precisely because of their medium, these watercolor drawings render a scene with something beyond the mere accuracy achieved with a camera. Of course, one of the most captivating features of these drawings is their degree of detail. The glint of gilt picture frames, the elaborate carpet patterns, the play of light on glassware; all these are recorded by the painter’s precise hand. The artist’s skill brings out the intricacies of everyday objects, causing the eye of the viewer, too, to linger over the smallest details.

In her exquisite watercolor drawing [above], the 15-year-old artist, Anna Alma-Tadema, invites us to examine her father’s library. Although she was not among the class of  commercial “watercolorists” capitalizing off of the demand for paintings of interiors, Tadema’s work certainly strives for the same end: to capture a room in all its detail in order to commemorate the way of life of its inhabitants. In this painting, the room is almost a museum in itself, decorated in diverse styles of artwork and furniture. Alma-Tadema presents the room as immaculately clean, lit with sunlight filtered through two windows. Despite the competing decorative influences, the room is unified by a palette of cool greens, browns and blues. With careful brushstrokes she brings out the texture of the bearskin on the chaise, the matte green surface of the reading table, and the glossy wood paneling nearest the viewer. The work is obviously a technical triumph in watercolor.

But looking past the detail, I realize the work shows us more than mere technical mastery. In its subject matter, too, the painting is more than an inventory of the objects in her father’s library. Like many good paintings, this one creates a world, and invites the viewer into it. Here, the “world” seems an especially miniature one, confined to a single room. But the work shows us more than that; it brings a room to life not just as three walls bounded by a floor and ceiling, but as a new space entirely. In the painting, the room is more than the sum of its parts (its walls, floors, window panes, furniture). It becomes a space which, in some way, the viewer is allowed to occupy, despite the distance between us and 1880s London.

Through intricate detail, an image of a room familiar to the artist is made known to us as a world of its own. It seems that the ostensible task of the watercolorist—-to faithfully reproduce the look of an interior—-entails more than just recording its contents. Simply because the medium is something like watercolor, and not a photograph, a portrait of a room becomes a space inhabited by the viewer, too. 

Sophy Schulman—St. John’s College Student