Curator's column: A reunion of art, and style of Alma-Tadema designs

How 10 years of research recreated a grand music room for "Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design"

Why would a New York millionaire in the 1880s turn to an acclaimed British painter to design the interior of a music room in Greco-Pompeian style for his newly-built mansion at 68th Street and Madison Avenue? There were plenty of local firms specializing in interior decoration that Henry Gurdon Marquand could have turned to and, indeed, he used many New York-based firms for the decoration of other rooms within his celebrated house.

But Marquand did ask the accomplished British artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema to design the room, and the result was one of the most remarkable domestic interiors of the late 19th century. An exhibition on view this summer at the Clark, "Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design," delves deeply into this fascinating story. My co-curator, Alexis Goodin, and I have worked for nearly 10 years to research every aspect of this extraordinary room, its genesis, and its fate. We hope that the results of our efforts will intrigue and astonish all who come to the Clark this summer.

Marquand, who had attended boarding school in Pittsfield and married Elizabeth Love Allen from the prominent Pittsfield family, made his fortune in banking, insurance and railroads. When he turned to Alma-Tadema for this project, he was reaching out to one of the most celebrated painters of the late 19th century, famous for his depictions of everyday scenes set in classical antiquity. These paintings often showed women clad in flowing classical robes within luxurious spaces, engaged in light-hearted pursuits.

Alma-Tadema's ability to mimic the materials and objects of ancient Greece and Rome — and in particular his ability to paint marble — was key to his success. His paintings look effortless, but underlying the seeming ease of his achievement lay a lifetime of devoted study of the material remains of classical antiquity.

Like many people in Europe of the time, he was fascinated by the archaeological discoveries made at Pompeii, an ancient city famously buried by a volcanic explosion in the year 79, which subsequently laid hidden beneath a meters-thick layer of ash for centuries. He first visited the Pompeian excavations in 1863, where he took notes, measurements and drawings of what he saw; and he soon started what would become a very large collection of photographs and drawings of ancient objects from Pompeii and elsewhere.

This collection, an extensive personal library of books that documented ancient design, and his incessant study of every scrap of ancient art he could find, meant that Alma-Tadema had at his finger-tips, as well as in his mind's eye, a vast array of ancient design sources he could use to invent a modern suite of furniture in a Greco-Pompeiian style. Examples of these design sources are included in the exhibition.

Marquand commissioned Alma-Tadema to design his room without any limit as to price. Alma-Tadema lined up one of the leading furniture firms in London, Johnstone, Norman & Co., and set to work designing a grand piano, a music cabinet, as well as chairs, tables and curtains for the room, ornamented with elaborate inlaid and embroidered decoration utilizing the finest materials and craftsmanship available. The resulting furniture astonished the public and press when it was first shown in London in 1885, before being shipped to New York. Alma-Tadema also lined up fellow artists to help decorate Marquand's elaborate music room with painted and sculpted decorations. The room was home not only to Marquand's musical entertainments, but also to his notable collection of ancient Greek and Roman ceramics and sculpture.

After Marquand's death in 1902, the contents of this extraordinary room were dispersed in a public auction. Now, some 115 years after his death, much of the contents of the room are now reassembled at the Clark for a few short months — a reunion never to be repeated and not to be missed.

Kathleen M. Morris is exhibition co-curator and Sylvia and Leonard Marx Director of Exhibitions and Curator of Decorative Arts at the Clark Art Institute.


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