Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Vignettes of Antiquity: The Victorian Romanticism of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Self-Portrait ~ 1896
Image courtesy of: http://www.alma-tadema.org

To glance at Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's paintings is akin to peering through the looking-glass and glimpsing a forgotten, bygone world: ancient lives and  rituals are once more brought back to life - the crashing sounds of Mediterranean or Ionian waves and the intoxicating scent of sea-air under the warm, unremitting sun are well nigh palpable.

Laurens Tadema, born on January 8th, 1836, in Dronrijp - a northern town of the Netherlands - was the sixth child of the village notary, Pieter Jiltes Tadema (1797-1840) and the third child of his mother, Hinke Dirks Brouwer (ca. 1800-1863). (His father had had three other sons from a previous marriage.) The Tadema surname (ending in 'ma,' means "son of"  Adam),  while the boy's first names (Laurens Alma) belonged to his godfather. Later in life, Laurens would be changed to the more English Lawrence, and Alma would be incorporated into his surname - his name was hyphenated not by the artist himself but rather, by others and, over time, became the conventional norm -  in order for his name to appear, alphabetically, at the beginning of exhibition catalogues under the letter 'A' instead of the letter 'T'. 
(Source: alma-tadema.org, 2002)

A Coign of Vantage ~ 1895

Spring ~ 1894

The Finding of Moses ~ 1904

The Finding of Moses ~ (Detail)

The Roses of Heliogabalus ~ 1888

Under The Roof of Blue Ionian Weather ~ 1903

Under The Roof of Blue Ionian Weather ~ (Detail)
The above seven images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/

Alma-Tadema's father died when he was only four years of age, leaving his mother the sole provider for a family of five children: Laurens, his sister Artje, and his three half-brothers from his father's previous marriage. Innately artistic, his mother decided that drawing lessons were to be included in her children's education and Laurens received his first tentative art lessons with a local drawing master who also happened to be his half-brothers' instructor. Even though it was intended that the boy should become a lawyer, nonetheless, in 1851 and at the tender age of fifteen, Laurens suffered a mental and physical breakdown. Having been diagnosed with "consumption" (better known as tuberculosis or phthisis), he was given a short span of time to live. As a result, Laurens was allowed spend the remainder of his days at leisure - drawing and painting. Against all odds, however, the teen-aged Laurens slowly recovered and he resolved to become an artist instead of a lawyer.

The following year, in 1852, Laurens enrolled in a four-year program at The Royal Academy of Antwerp where he studied the works of Flemish and Dutch masters; during his tenure as a student at the Academy, Laurens won several awards. (It was also during 1852 that Laurens painted his first self-portrait.) Then, towards the end of 1855 and before leaving school, Laurens became a studio assistant to one of his professors from the Academy, the painter Louis Jan de Taeye, whose classes on art and costume history the young pupil greatly enjoyed; it was an apprenticeship that lasted for three years. De Taeye was influential, encouraging his pupil and assistant towards historical accuracy in his paintings, a  trait for which Alma-Tadema became celebrated for. (Source: alma-tadema.org, 2002)

The Education of the Children of Clovis ~ 1861

Alma-Tadema's apprenticeship with de Taeye concluded in 1858 and the artist settled in Antwerp where he worked with another artist, Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys, whose studio was one of the most highly regarded in Belgium. It was under Hendrik Leys's guidance that Alma-Tadema undertook his first major work: The Education of the Children of Clovis in 1861. When it was exhibited at the Artistic Congress that year in Antwerp, The Children of Clovis created a sensation both among critics and artists alike. So much so, it was said that The Children of Clovis was responsible for the foundation of Alma-Tadema's fame and reputation. (Despite critical acclaim and although Hendrik Leys regarded the finished painting better than he had expected it to be, still, Leys disapproved of Alma-Tadema's handling of the marble, comparing it to cheese. It was a criticism that Alma-Tadema took seriously, impelling him to improve his technique to the point where he became the foremost painter of marble.)  The Education of the Children of Clovis was subsequently purchased and given to King Leopold of Belgium. (Source: alma-tadema.org, 2002)

Who Is It? ~ 1884

In The Time of Constantine ~ 1878

The Voice of Spring ~ 1910

Entrance To A Roman Theatre ~ 1866

Prose ~ 1879

Pleading ~ 1876

The Vintage Festival ~ 1870

Poetry ~ 1879

The Discourse

The Year's At The Spring, All's Right With The World ~ 1902
The above ten images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/

Up until the mid-1860s, Alma-Tadema's favourite subject matters were of a decidedly Merovingian nature pertaining to the Frankish dynasty established by Clovis (476-751 A.D.). However, these subjects did not have wide, international appeal and the artist sought inspiration from more popular ancient Egyptian themes instead. For his paintings, Alma-Tadema spent considerable effort and  time  researching  each subject matter. In 1862, Alma-Tadema lefty Leys's studio to establish his own artistic reputation.

For a couple of reasons, 1863 was a significant year for Alma-Tadema: his beloved mother died on January 3rd and later in the year, on September 24th, he wed Marie-Pauline Gressin - she appeared in a number of paintings, including three portraits - and with whom he established a family of three children: a son, who died in infancy of smallpox, and two daughters, Laurence (1864-1940) and Anna (1867-1943). (Both daughters inherited their father's artistic leanings - Laurence towards literature and Anna towards art. Neither of whom ever married.)

But Alma-Tadema's marriage had a more profound influence on his career. More specifically, at the time of their wedding, Alma-Tadema and his new bride honeymooned in Italy - the first of several forays there: Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii. The Pompeian ruins were especially inspirational and Alma-Tadema began to depict life as it may have been in the ancient Greco-Roman world. But the marriage, though a happy and affectionate one, was destined to be brief; sadly, after many years of ill health and like her firstborn infant son, Marie-Pauline died in Belgium of smallpox on May 28th, 1869, at the age of only thirty-two; Alma-Tadema never spoke of his former wife again. (Source: alma-tadema.org, 2002)

The Soldier of Marathon

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor ~ 1867

Among The Ruins ~ 1902-1904

A Kiss ~ 1891

A Favourite Custom ~ 1909

After The Audience ~ 1879

A Sculpture Gallery ~ 1867

Phidias Showing The Frieze of The Parthenon to His Friends ~ 1868

The Frigidarium ~ 1890

The Apodyterium
Image courtesy of: http://www.alma-tadema.org

The Triumph of Titus ~ 1885
The above ten images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/
(Unless otherwise indicated)

The most influential art dealer of the nineteenth-century, Ernest Gambart, met the young Alma-Tadema in the summer of 1864. Immediately recognizing his artistic talents, Gambart arranged for three of Alma-Tadema's paintings to be exhibitioned in London while at the same time, he commissioned an astounding twenty-four paintings from his newly discovered artist. Shortly thereafter, in 1865, Alma-Tadema relocated to Brussels.

After the death of his wife in 1869, Alma-Tadema was inconsolable and, for a few months following her demise, he ceased painting altogether (his sister, Artje, who lived with the family, cared for her nieces, Laurence and Anna, who were aged five and two at the time of their mother's death). That summer (1869), Alma-Tadema was himself stricken with a baffling illness for which the medical doctors in Brussels were unable to find a diagnosis. It was Ernest Gambart, his impresario, who advised Tadema to travel to England for a second, medical opinion. Alma-Tadema duly travelled to London in December 1869. Shortly after his arrival, Alma-Tadema was invited to the house of another painter, the artist Ford Maddox Brown; it was there, at Brown's house during his terminable visit in England, that Alma-Tadema met the seventeen year-old Laura Theresa Epps, with whom he fell instantly in love on sight. (Source: alma-tadema.org, 2002)

The Women of Amphissa ~ 1887
Image courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/

But, for two very compelling reasons, a more permanent move to England - accompanied by his two daughters and sister - resulted in September of 1870. In July of that year, the Franco-Prussian War commenced and Alma-Tadema resolved to leave the continent with his family and London was his principal choice of destination. It was a decision wholly approved of by Ernest Gambart who felt it to be a more advantageous - and strategic - move for Tadema's career. Alma-Tadema summed up his decision to relocate in this way, "Having always had a great predilection for London, the only place where, up till then my work had met with buyers, I decided to leave the continent and go settle in England, where I found a true home."

The other vital, albeit more personal, reason was his infatuation with Laura Theresa Epps; Alma-Tadema wasted no time in establishing contact with her. England became more of a permanent home when, in July of 1871 and for the second time, Tadema wed Laura Epps after a  courtship which began ostensibly under the guise of painting lessons given by the artist to Miss Epps. Although it remained childless, this second marriage was a happy one nonetheless. As with his former wife, Alma-Tadema portrayed Laura in numerous paintings - most notably, The Women of Amphissa (1887). 
(Source & quote: alma-tadema.org, 2002)

In The Tepidarium ~ 1881

Cherries ~ 1873

Promise of Spring ~ 1890

Strigils and Sponges ~ 1879

The Baths of Caracalla ~ 1899

Caracalla ~ 1902

A Dedication to Bacchus ~ 1889

A Reading from Homer ~ 1885

A Reading from Homer ~ (Detail)

Antony and Cleopatra ~ 1883

Unconscious Rivals ~ 1893

Unconscious Rivals ~ (Detail)
The above twelve images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was to spend the remainder of his life in England where his career flourished - he became one of the most highly sought-after and rewarded artists of his time. By 1871, Tadema had become acquainted with most of the Pre-Raphaelite painters; it was fundamentally due to his acquaintance with and the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites that Tadema brightened and varied his palette, lightening his brushstrokes in the process. (The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of painters and poets founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, W. Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in reaction to and protest against the low standards of British art; they valued the simplicity and beauty of the medieval world. "Pre-Raphaelite" refers to the painters and artwork before the time of the Italian artist Raphael.) So in demand and popular were his works that, by 1872, it was crucial for Tadema to organize his paintings into a numerical system whereby each work was appointed an opus number under his signature. It was a system designed to dissuade forgeries, making it difficult for forgerers to copy his works and passing them as Alma-Tadema originals.

In an effort to augment the historical  accuracy of his paintings, Tadema took advantage of  a new and technologically sensational  advancement of that period: photography. He began collecting photographs of ruins, building his folio of archival materials to aid him in his work. In January of 1876, Tadema took the extra step of renting a studio in the heart of that world he so loved to portray, Rome - the Eternal City. In April of that year (1876), the family returned to London, where, on June 19th, 1879, Alma-Tadema was accorded his most important award, that of a full-status Academician. Three years later, in 1882, a retrospective exhibition was organized at the Grosvenor Gallery in London which included 185 of his works to date.

Alma-Tadema returned to Rome once again in 1883. While in Italy, he also paid a return visit to Pompeii as well, where further excavations had been made since his last journey there.  He visited Pompeii daily, studying the site and its ruins. Pompeii was a constant source of inspiration for Tadema, not only providing him with ample subject matter for his paintings but broadening his knowledge of ancient Roman life. However, although he is best known for his depictions of life in Antiquity, Tadema also created contemporary portraits, interiors and landscapes of his own times and experimented with different work methods, including watercolours and etching. (Sources: alma-tadema.org, 2002; reference.com, 2011)

The Sculpture Gallery ~ 1874

The Sculpture Gallery ~ (Detail)

Godspeed! ~ 1893

A Silent Greeting ~ 1889

A Greek Woman ~ 1869

Confidences ~ 1869

Preparation In The Colosseum ~ 1912

Preparation In The Colosseum ~ (Detail)

A Roman Emperor A.D. 41 ~ 1871
Image above is courtesy of: http://www.alma-tadema.org

A Roman Emperor A.D. 41 ~ (Detail 1)

A Roman Emperor A.D. 41 ~ (Detail 2)
The above ten images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/
(Unless otherwise indicated)

With advancing age, Tadema's output naturally decreased. Another reason for the diminished output was Tadema's obsession with the decoration of his new house, where he moved to in 1883. Nonetheless, he still exhibited throughout the 1880s and beyond. With his reputation came a host of accolades: in 1889 he received the medal of honour at the Paris Exposition Universelle; he was elected to an honorary membership of the Oxford University Dramatic Society in 1890; he received the Great Gold Medal at the International Fine Arts Exposition in Brussels in 1897; he was knighted in 1899 (only the eighth continental artist to be honoured so); and he helped not only to organize the British section of the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, but he exhibited two of his works there which earned him the Grand Prix Diploma. Furthermore, in 1904, Alma-Tadema assisted with the St. Louis World's Fair where he was also represented.

Moreover, during this latter phase of his life, Alma-Tadema expanded his boundaries and diversified his artistic talents. For instance, he undertook furniture design (Classical in form and usually modeled after Pompeian or Egyptian examples), illustration, frame-making, and even textiles; he also became interested in theatre design and created costumes for theatrical productions. But in spite of or in addition to these other activities, Alma-Tadema still produced paintings - only not as frequently as he once used to. There is also the issue of popular taste: his marketability ended, more or less, along with the Victorian age - paintings that once fetched in the thousands of pounds were nearly worthless and impossible to sell in the 1900s (at one point, Alma-Tadema paintings could be had for twenty pounds).

On August 15th, 1909, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema became a widower for the second time in his life when his beloved Laura died at the age of fifty-seven. The grief-stricken Tadema only managed to outlive his wife by three years - his last work, Preparation In The Colosseum, was completed in 1912. In the summer of that same year, 1912, and accompanied by his daughter Anna to a German health spa (Kaiserhof Spa in Wiesbaden) for treatment of stomach ulceration, he died there on June 28th, aged seventy-six. He is buried in a crypt at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. 
(Sources: alma-tadema.org, 2002; goodart.org, undated)

A Balneator

John Ruskin once denounced Alma-Tadema as "the worst painter of the nineteenth century." Alma-Tadema's reputation fell into obscurity for many years after his death in 1912; until, that is, the early 1970s. A full biography by Russell Ash was published in 1973; and in 1995, a definitive, full-colour book with large prints of the artist's works was also published by Ash - both books were instrumental in reintroducing Tadema's works to a new and somewhat receptive generation of art lovers who were practically unaware of his existence.  

But Tadema's influence can best be perceived in the medium of other artists: film. It is said that directors Cecil B. De Mille and D. W. Griffith were directly influenced by Tadema's monumental vision of the ancient world. The portrayals in epic films such as Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Ben Hur (1926), and De Mille's Cleopatra (1934) and The Ten Commandments (1956) are directly linked to the works of Alma-Tadema. Jessie J. Laskey, co-writer of The Ten Commandments, has described how De Mille would spread out prints of Tadema's paintings to indicate  the look he wanted to achieve in his film to  his set designers.  (Source: goodart.org, undated)

Pastimes In Ancient Egypt, 3,000 Years Ago ~ 1863

Egyptian Chess Players ~ 1865

Joseph - Overseer of Pharaoh's Granaries ~ 1874

Death of Pharaoh's Firstborn Son ~ 1872

Between Hope and Fear ~ 1876

The Conversion of Paula by Saint Jerome ~ 1898

Bacchanal ~ 1871

Hadrian Visiting A Romano-British Pottery ~ 1884

The Roman Potter ~ 1884

The Wat To The Temple ~ 1882

Between Venus and Bacchus ~ 1882

Xanthe and Phaon ~ 1883
The above thirteen images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/

Thou Rose of All The Roses ~ 1883

An Oleander ~ 1882

Ave Caesar! Io, Saturnalia! ~ 1880

Water Pets

Interior of Caius Martius's House ~ 1901

Love's Jewelled Fetter ~ 1895

The Colosseum ~ 1896

Sculptors In Ancient Rome ~ 1877

Architecture In Ancient Rome ~ 1877

A Roman Art Lover ~ 1868

Catullus At Lesbia's ~ 1865

Lesbia Weeping Over A Sparrow ~ 1866

The Honeymoon ~ 1868
The above thirteen images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/

From An Absent One ~ 1871

In The Temple ~ 1871

The Flower Market ~ 1868
The above three images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/

Portraits, Exteriors & Interiors
Self-Portrait ~ 1852

Portrait of Anna Alma-Tadema ~ 1883
(Younger daughter of Sir Lawrence by his first wife)

Portrait of Miss Laura Theresa Epps
(Lady Alma-Tadema, the artist's second wife)

Portrait of Mrs. Charles Wyllie

Miss Alice Lewis ~ 1884

Master John Parsons Millet ~ 1889

Mrs. George Lewis and her daughter, Elizabeth ~ 1899

Portrait of Ignacy Jan Paderewski ~ 1891

Ninety-Four In The Shade ~ 1876

Flag of Truce

Portrait of Aimé-Jules Dalou, his Wife and Daughter ~ 1876

A Family Group ~ 1896

This Is Our Corner ~ 1873

My Studio ~ 1867
(Featuring Alma-Tadema's first wife, Marie-Pauline Gressin)

The Drawing Room at Townshend House ~ 1885

Interior of The Church of San Clemente, Rome ~ 1863
The above sixteen images are courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org/

Flora (or Spring in the Gardens of the Villa Borghese)

Gathering Pansies


The above four images are courtesy of: http://www.alma-tadema.org

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema by Edward Onslow Ford
Image courtesy of: http://www.artrenewal.org

Suggested readings:

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Spring (1990), by Louise Lippincott: J. Paul Getty Museum

The Athens of Alma-Tadema (1991), by Richard Allan Tomlinson: Alan Sutton

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1995), by Russell Ash: Pavilion

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1997), by Edwin Becker & Elizabeth Prettejohn: Rizzoli

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (2001), by Rosemary J. Barrow: Phaidon Press

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (2001), by Edmund Swinglehurst: Grange Books

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1902) - (2010), by Helen Zimmern: Kessinger Publishing, LLC