Friday, October 17, 2008


Acclaimed Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912) was born in Holland, lived in London and was known for highly detailed, idealistic scenes of ancient Greece and Rome. His popularity faded when the Victorian era ended, but his work made a comeback in the 20th century.
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 his 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. (Source:
Throughout his school days, first in Leeuwarden and later in Antwerp, Alma-Tadema seems to have been popular and generally in the center of things. Although intelligent and hardworking, he was no academic. Later he remembered the struggle between his artistic interests and 'the irksome routine of school life'. The only subject which interested him, apart from drawing, was history and then only those episodes which he saw as potential subject matter for an artist. Twenty-six small pencil drawings (c1848) on separate sheets of paper survive from this period.
His first commission, and earliest known oil painting, came in 1849 when the three children of Watse and Henrietta Hamstra asked the young artist to paint their joint portrait. It was done in secret as it was intended as a present for their parents. His success with Portrait of the three Hamstra children (No 1, 1849) was especially fortuitous because their father, Watse Hamstra was President of the Society for the Promotion of Painting and Drawing in Leeuwarden.
Leeuwarden did not offer many facilities for studying pictures. Sensitive to this and fearing that he might never excel because of it, Alma-Tadema attempted to visit every house in town containing paintings, and used every opportunity to see the work of local artists. William van der Kooi, who died the year of Tadema's birth, was the most impressive Fries painter of the time and his firm and elegant portraits must have influenced the young man
Alma-Tadema was no fool. He had the ability to remove himself from the pressures of his profession and lose himself amongst his friends. His working methods were so demanding and tedious that his frequent periods of 'letting go' ensured his continued mental and physical stability.
According to Millie Lowenstam, daughter of the engraver Leopold Lowenstam, Alma-Tadema was 'horrible' to work with: 'too much of a perfectionist and always demanded extra work of father. He was hot-tempered and could become excessively angry if details didn't run smoothly.' She went so far as to insinuate that Alma-Tadema helped drive her father to an early grave. He continually shepherded each etching through to completion, and demanded those in his employ to meet the same stringent standards as he set for himself.
His conscientiousness was evident in the frequent use of a large magnifying glass whilst painting the meticulously rendered flowers. According to Ethel McKenna, 'Every moment of daylight spent away from his easel is regretted.' He always rose at six in the morning to begin painting at first light even though he frequently stayed up late with his friends. Although robust, he consumed his own energies at an astonishing rate. A cycle of exhaustion often led to sickness followed by convalescence of the most pampered sort. The entire family was obsessed with health, and in the latter years one or the other were always absent taking cures at prestigious European spas.
He continuously reworked sections of his paintings to satisfy his own high standards. As one visitor to his studio remarked, 'I have seen Mr Alma-Tadema painting out a thousand pounds! He was, nonetheless, an excellent businessman, and one of the wealthiest artists of the nineteenth century . He was as firm in money matters as he was with the quality of his work.
He remained in all respects a diligent, if somewhat obsessive and pedantic worker. In his personal life he was an extrovert and a remarkably warm personality. He had most of the characteristics of a child, coupled with the admirable traits of a consummate professional. (Biography of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. 1994)

Oil on canvas, 189470 1/2 x 31 3/8 inches (179.1 x 80 cm)
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

A Coign of Vantage
Oil on canvas, 1895
17 1/2 x 25 1/8 inches (44.5 x 64 cm)
Private collection

The Finding of Moses
Oil on canvas, 1904
54 1/8 x 84 inches (137.5 x 213.4 cm)
Private collection

The Roses of Heliogabalus
Oil on canvas, 1888
52 x 84 1/8 inches (132.1 x 213.9 cm)
Private collection

The author of over 700 poems and prose poems, Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) continued well into the twentieth century the Decadent and Symbolist traditions of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Algernon Swinburne. Born in Long Valley, California, C.A. Smith was hailed early as a poetic prodigy, and compared to Keats and Shelley. He was distinguished by a sure and delicate sense of rhythm and a taste for exotic or archaic words. In this he resembled his English contemporary Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), who along with Smith combined a sensuous response to life with a world-weary attitude to love. In their love for the rare, the exquisite, the gemlike, and even the perverse, they might be described as fin de siecle.
Fin de siecle also is the subject, if not the treatment, of Alma-Tadema's delicately wrought masterpiece The Roses of Heliogabalus. There is no known connection between the poem and the painting other than the choice of the same incident from the life of 3rd century Roman emperor Heliogabalus (Varius Avitus Bassus). The episode is that of Heliogabalus literally (and fatally) smothering his guests in a shower of rose-petals. Alma-Tadema, unlike Smith, has eschewed the morbid connotations of this subject and focussed more on the frolicsome pleasures of the Roman aristocracy. Frolicsome was not the process of painting this piece, which took some time and labour, with Tadema having to import roses out of season.
C.A. Smith's poem is an interesting counterpart to Alma-Tadema's painting as it focusses more on the personality of the emperor, who is seen as something of a decadent aesthete. An exhaustive search has not turned up an individual called 'Christophe des Laurières', and is assumed by this author to be Clark Ashton Smith writing pseudonymously.

Clark Ashton Smith
Translated from Christophe des Laurières

He, the supreme idealist of Sin,
Through scarlet days a white perfection sought —
To make of lyric deed and lyric thought
One music of perverse accord, wherein
The songless blatancy and banal din
Of all the world should perish: he had wrought
From Vice a pure, Pentelic Venus, fraught
With lines of light and terror, that should win
The plaudits of the stars. . . . But prevalent
For him, above the achievable desire,
And Life perfectible by Sin and Art,
Such lusts as leave the Titans impotent
Allured, and Life and Sin, in worlds apart,
Were fair with suns of quintessential fire.
(Source: The Eldritch Dark)

The Discourse
Oil on cradled panel
16 x 10 inches (40.64 x 25.40 cm)
Collection of Fred and Sherry Ross

After the Audience
Oil on canvas, 1879
25 7/8 x 35 7/8 inches (66 x 91.4 cm)
Private collection

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends
Oil on canvas, 1868
28 1/4 x 43 1/2 inches (72 x 110.5 cm)
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham

The Triumph of Titus
Oil on canvas, 1885
Private collection

Egyptian Juggler
Oil on canvas, 1870
17 5/8 x 26 inches (45 x 66.1 cm)
Private collection

A Dedication to Bacchus
Oil on canvas, 1889
30 1/2 x 69 7/8 inches (77.5 x 177.5 cm)
Private collection

Preparation in the Coliseum
Oil on canvas, 1912
60 3/8 x 31 1/4 inches (153.5 x 79.5 cm)
Private collection

Joseph - Overseer of the Pharoah's Granaries
Oil on canvas, 1874
31 3/8 x 45 1/2 inches (80 x 115.6 cm)
Private collection

The Colosseum
Oil on wood, 1896
44 x 28 7/8 inches (112 x 73.6 cm)
Private collection

The Roman Potter
Oil on canvas, 1884
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

A Collection of Pictures at the Time of Augustus
Oil on panel, 1867
Private collection

A Picture Gallery
Oil on canvas, 1866
Fine Art Society, London

Self Portrait
Oil on canvas, 1852
Fries Museum, Leeuwarden

Alma-Tadema's paintings are often criticised as lacking emotion and spirituality. The Art Journal complained that there was 'no spirituality and little intellect in the faces of men and women in his world.' In the 1920s the Bloomsbury Group singled out Alma-Tadema's work as an illustration of all that was wrong with Victorian art, accusing him of wasting his technical skill on subjects so futile, pointless and superficial.
Alma-Tadema's life was an enormously sucessful one in which he was made an RA, knighted and showered with honours from many countries. By 1911, however, his popularity began to wane. Realising that his work was becoming unfashionable he resigned from the Royal Academy committee, after serving on it for thirty-one years. In the following year he went to take the waters at Wiesbaden, Germany where he was suddenly taken ill and died on 25 June 1912. His body was brought back to England and interred in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral (London), where it lies in the company of fellow artists, Millais, Holman Hunt and Lord Leighton. Like so many artists before him, the grim realities of World War I helped to finish off whatever popularity his work had enjoyed, and it is only recently that his reputation as a major Victorian artist has been restored. (
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.

All Images: Courtesy of Art Renewal Center

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