Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch ex-patriate who lived most of his life in England. His name had been Lorens Tadema and Alma had been his middle name in Holland. His life followed a path similar to that of Victorian England. He was born a year before Victoria in 1836 and was knighted on her 80th birthday. Tadema was arguably the most successful painter of the Victorian era. For over sixty years he gave his audience exactly what it wanted; distinctive, elaborate paintings of beautiful people in classical settings. His incredibly detailed reconstructions of ancient Rome, with languid men and women posed against white marble in dazzling sunlight provided his audience with a glimpse of a world of the kind they might one day construct for themselves at least in attitude if not in detail. During his sixty productive years Tadema produced over 400 known paintings and had some success designing musical instruments as well. In 1980 a piano he designed for Henry Marquand of New York made 177,273 pounds at auction, making it to date not only the most expensive such musical instrument ever sold, but also the most costly example of 19th-century applied art).
Being a creature of his time, when the Victorian period ended so did his marketability. Paintings which once would have sold for 10,000 pounds a few years earlier were practically impossible to sell at all. In fact, some of his paintings could have been had for as little as 20 pounds at that time. His friendships with the Prince of Wales and the young Winston Churchill faded and his artistic legacy almost vanished. As attitudes of the public in general and the artists in particular changed for the worse regarding the possibilities of human achievement, his paintings were increasingly denounced. He was declared "the worst painter of the 19th century" by John Ruskin, and one critic even remarked that his paintings were "about worthy enough to adorn bourbon boxes". After this brief period of actively being denounced he was consigned to relative obscurity for many years. It was not until 1973 that a biography of Alma-Tadema was printed (by Russell Ash), and not until 1990 that a full color book containing large prints of his paintings was published (ISBN 0-8109-1898-6, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Russell Ash, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 100 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011).
One seldom noticed influence Tadema has had on modern art is the vision of the ancient world portrayed in such films as D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), and Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), and Cleopatra (1934). Jessie J. Laskey, co-writer on De Mille's The Ten Commandments has described how the producer would customarily spread out prints of Alma-Tadema paintings to indicate to his set designers the look he wanted to achieve.
The seal shown above includes a banner which reads "As the Sun colours flowers, so art colours life."
Spring (Detail) (69K)
Spring (Detail) (10K)
The procession is of servants of the Temple of Flora who are celebrating the Roman festival of Cereralia. A verse from Algernon Swinburne's poem, Dedication, appears engraved on the oversized golden frame:
In a land of clear colours and stories,
In a region of shadowless hours,
Where Earth has a garment of glories
And a murmur of musical flowers.
The setting is imaginary, bringing together architectural details from several sources, including wall paintings from Pompeii in the roundels on the banner, the centauramachy frieze from the Temple at Bassae recycled from A Dedication to Bacchus on the building on the left and a votive plaque beginning with the phrase "Hunc Lucum Tibi Dedico" - 'I dedicate this wood to you'. Carried in the procession are two silver saytr herms, each with an infant Dionysos on his shoulder carrying a liknon, or winnowing basket filled with fruit. One of Tadema's most famous and popular works, it took him four years to complete and involved several reworkings to perfect the union of historical detail and aesthetic composition. The figures inthe procession include the likenesses of numerous friends, family members, and fellow artists including musicians Sir George and Lillian Henschel and their daughter Helen who looks down from the balcony on the right and several instances of his daughters Anna and Laurence in the foreground.
Spring currently hangs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu California, though it is exhibited in the reading room rather than in the main exhibit space.
A Difference of Opinion (71K)
Caracalla and Geta (207K)
Caracalla and Geta is an excellent example of the degree of research and detail Alma-Tadema put into his paintings. The Coliseum in Rome would hold 35,000 spectators and the section cut out by this painting comprises 1/7th of the area for a total a 5,000, about half of whom are obscured by pillars and garlands. He individually painted all 2,500 tiny figures on a relatively large canvas (4'x5'). So proud was he of his talent at such miniature painting that he would often give a magnifying glass to visitors with which to inspect the fine detail. He was over seventy years old when he painted Caracalla and Geta.
A Reading from Homer (1885) (142K)
After Alma-Tadema's move to his new studio with its famed polished aluminum ceiling, there was a noticable enhancement in the brightness of his paintings, of which this was an early example. Eight months of research were said to have been devoted to this and an abandoned companion painting, Plato with two months' work in the painting.
In The Tepidarium (72K)
A World of their Own (119K)
The Baths of Caracalla (55K)
Xanthe and Phaon (1884) (54K) The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland
Preparations for the Festivities (65K) Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Spring Delight (1902) (52K) Private Collection
The Kiss (1891) (58K)
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