Described in the Windsor Magazine in 1896 as ‘a master of white marble and blue skies’, Lawrence Alma- Tadema was renowned for the historical accuracy of his paintings. The vintage festival is set in the villa of Marcus Holconius Rufus, a prominent citizen of Pompeii at the time of that city’s destruction (79 CE). This work is a classic example of the astonishingly vivid recreations of daily life in the ancient Roman and Greek worlds that brought the Dutch-born Alma-Tadema – who had migrated to England from Belgium in 1870 – both critical acclaim and financial security.
A scholar of ancient history, Alma-Tadema has filled this scene of Bacchic revelry – celebrating the fruits of the annual grape harvest – with dozens of lovingly recreated objects from the first century CE, which he had researched with an archaeological precision (he later bequeathed his five-thousand-volume research library to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London). As a critic for the Art Journal wrote of The vintage festival in 1883:
In this elaborate composition the artist has carried archaeological realism to a high degree: witness the straps and bandages which support the flutes at the mouths of the flute-players. The richness and the quantity of the work in this picture are surprising; nevertheless it is full of space, neither the numbers of figures nor the profusion of architectural and other exquisite detail producing any crowd of forms or infelicity of lines. The colour is a splendid combination of richness and radiance, all the loveliness of tint possible to flowers, gold, and marble, silk and rich ivy-leaves, being brought together in a chord of colour that has not the quarter of a semitone astray. (Art Journal, March 1883, p.67)
Alma-Tadema painted two versions of this composition simultaneously: a larger painting (now at the Kunsthalle Hamburg), which was first exhibited at the gallery of the London dealer Ernest Gambart in 1871; and the slightly smaller version (this painting), which was sent to the printer Auguste Blanchard in Paris, to be used as the basis for an engraving. Blanchard’s engraving, published in 1874, served to further familiarize Victorian audiences with Alma-Tadema’s Dionysian depiction of Roman splendour.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 69.