Oil on canvas; signed and dated '1882+'; signed, titled and dated again verso
24.5 x 19 inches
T. Eaton Picture Department, Canada
Private Collection, Canada
This painting is one of the first to feature the artist’s model and muse, Agnes Leefe, who was a actress at the Leeds Grand Theatre. Grimshaw invited her to stay with his wife and family in their home, Knostrop Hall, in 1879. Although Grimshaw’s grandson insisted that their ‘association was only professional’, the artist’s daughter remembered that ‘Poor Mama ... was deeply hurt ... Agnes Leefe remained, living in the studio, but having her dinner with us – between 4 o’clock and 5 – and sleeping upstairs in a front attic bedroom’.
Leefe has been variously described as ‘model, studio assistant, governess’, even ‘lady’s companion’. She was the sitter in many of Grimshaw’s best figure subjects in his ‘Aesthetic Movement’ manner, similar to that of Alma Tadema and Tissot. Grimshaw’s working method, in landscape and in figure painting, could be described as developing ‘variations on a theme’; It was not a process of refinement, of sketches towards a finished picture, but one of experimentation in different moods, with each successive version subtly different. Our painting is the prototype of four subsequent re-inventions. A year later, Grimshaw painted Fiammetta, a very similar composition of the same size (now in Bradford Art Galleries, Cartwright Hall). In the same year he painted another, smaller version that he called Lauretta, and in 1885 he exhibited a fourth version, A Vestal, the largest yet at 24 x 20”, and his only picture to be shown at the Grosvenor Gallery.
‘Fiammetta’ is the name Boccaccio gave to Maria Aquino, the woman he loved but never married. He imagined her as cold as a marble statue, which no fire can ever warm. Agnes Leefe, then, is set as an object of unrequited love, before a marble frieze with classical figures and trailing ivy, with a garland of ivy in her curly dark hair. Ivy was sometimes used by artists to signify a woman’s dependence on a man for support, as on a sturdy oak.