About the artwork
Samuel Luke Fildes was a Liverpool-born artist. He first studied art at the Mechanics Institute in Liverpool and then at the Warrington School of Art. After winning a scholarship Fildes was able to continue his studies in the Kensington Art School in London and at the Royal Academy. Fildes initially supported himself by working as an illustrator for books and magazines. The publication of 'Houseless and Hungry', an illustration of poor people waiting in front of a free overnight shelter in the 'Graphic' magazine in 1869 helped the artist to establish his reputation. Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, having seen illustrations by Fildes recommended the artist to Charles Dickens, to illustrate 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'.
'An Al-fresco Toilette' is characteristic of Fildes's later work, when he moved away from the social realist works with which he began his career. The painting originally had a different title, 'The Morning of the Fiesta' and was begun in Venice in 1887. The artist originally painted only the background and had to change that further the following year. The central figure was according to the artist's testimony a portrait of his wife and the child facing the spectator a portrait of his son. The building in the background was the studio of the artist Henry Woods. In the correspondence between Woods and Fildes, the latter revealed his anxiety about 'An Al Fresco Toilette'. In one of these letters Fildes remarked about the two paintings he was working on for the Royal Academy exhibition: "It's a great pity I am so short of time for otherwise I could make good things of them both".
The theme of the painting is the preparation of Venetian women in the courtyard of an old building before the fiesta. The work is distinct for its subtle effect of light and the vibrancy of the gestures and expressions. It is tempting to assume that the artist painted the scene from real life but the arrangement of the composition as well as Fildes's description of the troubles he had in completing the picture suggest that it was probably based on a study but completed in his studio. Fildes and Henry Woods were the leaders of the Neo-Venetian school; they painted scenes of cheerful groups of girls at canal sides, on balconies, selling flowers or simply combing their hair. A similar but earlier work by Fildes, titled 'Venetians' is in the Manchester Art Gallery. It is a large composition of young Venetian women doing their washing on the steps leading down to the canal. These types of scenes were very different from Turner's atmospheric watercolours of Venice but were popular in public exhibitions, illustrated magazines and with collectors. Fildes and Woods, in pursuing this type of art were influenced by the examples of Eugen von Blaas and Carl van Haanen whose works were extremely popular in Northern Europe.
Samuel Luke Fildes's early oil subjects drew from everyday life experiences and he often used real models from the street for his social realist subjects. Such works aimed to generate the sympathy of the middle classes by showing aspects of urban life generally ignored. However, he had to be careful in how to portray the miseries of the poor, since extremely crude and blunt representation of hardship could alienate the public who were used to the heightened drama and mythical representations of Victorian High Art. An example of Fildes's social realist work is the painting 'The Widower', in Room 10 of the Walker.
By the mid 1880s Fildes had abandoned social realist subjects. Influenced by a trip to Venice in 1874 with his bride Fanny, who was also an artist and the sister of the painter Henry Woods, Fildes started painting Venetian themes and especially portraits of anonymous but beautiful women. This was an extremely different type of art to the factual representation of hard times, but perhaps Fildes was aware of the difficulties of finding a market for his previous works.
'An Al-fresco Toilette' reflects the beauty of everyday life and reality and is an idyllic notion of the lives of ordinary people. Despite the popularity of these themes, critics were disappointed by the shift in Fildes's work and believed that he was better off painting British subjects of a dramatic and perhaps social realist theme. Perhaps what these critics also indicated in such comments was that paintings exposing the hardship in Victorian times and appealing to the charitable and sentimental feelings of Victorians were in line with an expected moralistic role for art, previously promoted by Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. In 'An Al-fresco Toilette' the juxtaposition between the vibrancy and charm of the Venetian ladies and the old building could be seen as a metaphor for the transience of life.
'An Al-fresco Toilette' was commissioned by Arthur Anderson and a photograph survives showing the painting hanging in Anderson's drawing room in his London home. When Lord Leverhulme bought the painting in 1913 he must have considered it appropriate for his soap advertisements and particularly appealing to his target audience, women. J. W. Waterhouse's painting 'Toilet' (1889-90) was of a similar subject and may have been inspired by Fildes's work.