Designed by the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, this wonderful and very impressive sheet is a very rare survival version of one of his most famous composition that he executed in a painting and a watercolor after 1872. The first painting, A Halt (1872), an oil panel commissioned by Ernest Gambart was destroyed in a fire in 1873. The watercolor of the same subject, Autumn, dating from 1874, is in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and now showed in every exhibition about the artist.
The author of the catalogue raisonné, Vern G. Swanson, suggested that this sheet is a version possibly designed by Alma-Tadema in 1879 to help Leopold Löwenstam engrave his composition. However, in the same year, it was in the Vanderbilt collection, so we are inclined to propose an earlier date. It would have been unusual for such a drawing to move so quickly in 1879 from the dealer (Pilgeram and Lefevre) to a major client like Vanderbilt while the print had not been published yet. In 1884, the drawing is exhibited as Scene in a Roman Garden in the collection of William Vanderbilt, in New-York, with four other works by Alma-Tadema. It worth mentioning this distinguished provenance, William Vanderbilt being one of the most sophisticated collectors of his time in United States.
If this sheet shares some general similarities with the first two works, Alma-Tadema also included different details. All three are very elongated frieze-like compositions representing a few figures seated on an exedra (a semicircular bench), in a forest. Only the watercolor and the present drawing share the same disposition of the figures and the Latin inscription on the marble. The drawing is also the only work showing the base of an antic statue behind the bench, and sculpted griffins as armrests. A variation of the detail of the griffins also appears in an oil painting from 1869 entitled An Exedra (private collection). As for many other of his paintings, Alma-Tadema commissioned engraved reproductions to his friend Leopold Löwenstam, for which he was very demanding, following very closely the process, giving him photos and a “careful drawing’ to work with” (see Robert Verhoogt, 2007, p. 451).
Linked to the title, Autumn, this image can be understood as a representation of the cycle of life. The three ages of human existence are depicted in different attitudes, the younger men are on the far-left, reflecting and dreaming about their future, the middle-aged man is at the far-right courting a woman, and the oldest man is seated in the middle, confronting us with a stern look on his face. Here, Alma-Tadema depicts a very melancholic atmosphere, referring to the passing of time and exalting his fascination for antiquity, following his visit of Pompeii in 1863. From this travel, the painter had taken a great number of picture of the ruins, which he used in many compositions for architectural details.