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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Ups and Downs of Alma-Tadema

Spring, 1894, depicts the servants of the Temple of Flora
celebrating the Roman festival of Cerealia.  This
painting took four years to complete, and features
 members of his family, friends, and fellow artists.
Image courtesy of the Getty.

Contrary to most artists, the story of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema is not an angst-filled drama of unappreciative hard work, poverty, and obscurity.  During his lifetime he was arguably the most successful artist of the Victorian era.  His paintings of elegant people - "Victorians in togas", as one critic suggested - languidly posed in gorgeous classical settings appealed to the zeitgeist of Victorian times.  He was a Dutch ex-pat in Britain painting ancient Greece and Rome.

Detail from Spring.

Lourens Alma Tadema was born in the Netherlands.  His family intended for him to be a lawyer, but at age fifteen he suffered a physical and mental breakdown.  He was given a short time to live, and so was allowed to spend this time at leisure, drawing and painting.  He weaned himself back to health and decided to become an artist.  (Note:  he later anglicized his first name to Lawrence, and hyphenated his middle and last names so he would appear early in any alphabetized lists.  His last name rhymed with "had'em a", which was part of a verse tribute to him.)  In 1852 he entered the Royal Academy of Antwerp in Belgium and studied early Dutch and Flemish art.  In his four years there as a student he won several awards. He later became a studio assistant to one of his instructors who encouraged him to display historical accuracy in his paintings, for which he became famous.  He shared lodging in the home of an archaeologist, which fostered his interest in that subject, and was friends with an Egyptologist which furthered his interest.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 19th Century, photographer and date unknown.
Image courtesy of PreteristArchive.com.

He then started working with another highly regarded artist in Belgium, and painted his first major work in 1861.  The Education of the Children of Clovis started his fame and reputation as it was a hit with artists and critics alike.  In fact, it was so highly regarded that it was bought and given to King Leopold of Belgium.  His main interest was in the Merovingians (rulers of Gaul from the 6th to 8th centuries).  But after a trip to London he was inspired by the so-called "Elgin Marbles" (forgive me but I am half-Greek and wish to see them returned - they never belonged to Elgin) and the Egyptian artifacts in the British Museum.

The Education of the Children of Clovis, 1861.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

He married in 1863 and honeymooned in Italy.  This piqued his interest in ancient Greece and Rome,  especially after visiting Pompeii.  He returned in 1876 and rented a studio in Rome, and returned again in 1883.  From all his trips he amassed a huge collection of photos and archival material for use in future paintings.  He even went to the quarry where Cararra marble is from (one of his early teachers told him his marble looked like cheese) to learn to convey its distinctive look and texture.  He studied classical architecture, studied and painted marble to depict it perfectly (he was called in Punch magazine  "the marbelous painter").  Later he even designed furniture, mostly Pompeiian or Egyptian in style, which he used in his paintings.  He even designed women's clothing.

The Triumph of Titus, 1885.  Image courtesy of PreteristArchive.com.

In 1864 he met Ernest Gambart who was the most influential art dealer and print publisher of the time.  Alma-Tadema moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life.  He met and friended many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and they influenced his work.  He was an excellent businessman, and one of the wealthiest artists of the 19th century.  He received many awards in his lifetime, and was knighted in 1899.  He was the eighth artist from "the continent" to be knighted.

Silver Favourites, 1903.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is little action in his paintings, although one can see the fine execution of the old Dutch masters in his work.  He was a perfectionist, and repeatedly reworked his paintings until he was satisfied (hence the four years it took to paint Spring.) The rose petals and flowers are from live ones - he would hurry to paint them before they withered.  His archaeological research paid off.  If one studies the architecture of the buildings in his paintings, one can see the meticulous design - any one of them could be built by ancient Romans using Roman tools, methods, and materials.  As a matter of fact, his paintings were (and are) used as source material for Hollywood productions, such as Ben Hur, Cleopatra, and the Ten Commandments.  They are still used by set designers - as recently as 2005 they were used for the Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Egyptian Chess Players, 1879.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

He is distinctive for portraying "everyday" life from classical times, and not mythology, legends, and seldom famous figures.  Every detail in his paintings is exact and correct, from marble to metals, however his people lack "soul".  They are not differentiated in his paintings, and function as if they were objects.  While his contemporaries produced genre paintings with historical dress and allegorical themes, Alma-Tadema held that art should elevate and not teach, so he never intended any social or moral lessons.

The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888.  Image courtesy of PreteristArchive.com.

Although in his heyday he was financially successful, in the early 1920s Victorian art in general saw a huge collapse in prices.  This devaluation lasted some forty years.  Alma-Tadema's paintings were denounced, he was declared "the worst painter of the 19th century" by John Ruskin, the curmudgeon, who never liked Alma-Tadema's work (early on, Ruskin commented on one painting, "the general effect was exactly like a microscopic view of a small detachment of black-beetles, in search of a dead rat").

A Favourite Custom, 1909.  Image courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London.

After being relegated to virtual obscurity, his paintings caught the eye of one man. Allan Funt, famous for his Candid Camera television show, had a B.A. from Cornell in fine arts from 1934.  He starting buying Alma-Tadema when the artist's reputation was at its lowest.  Within a few years, he had bought some 35 works. However, he was forced to sell them due to financial difficulties.  He sold them just before the prices shot up, and shoot up they did.  The painting called The Finding of Moses in 1960 was put on sale by the Newman Gallery, and didn't even meet the reserve when it sold for £252.  The initial purchase had been £5,250 after completion.  It sold for £861 in 1935, and £265 in 1942.  After Funt sold his collection at Sotheby's in London in 1973, interest in Alma-Tadema renewed.  That same painting was auctioned at Christies in New York for £1.75 million in 1995. Last November it sold for $35,922,500 to an anonymous bidder at Sotheby's in New York.  This is the highest price paid for Alma-Tadema and for a Victorian painting.

The Finding of Moses, 1904.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although he had intended to be buried with his second wife who pre-deceased him, he is buried in a crypt in St. Paul's cathedral in London, as befits a highly-honored individual.  The recipient of numerous awards and honors, he enjoyed a life of wealth, popularity, and the pursuit of his interests.  A life like that is uncommon, especially for an artist.  I salute the successful life of art, history, archaeology, and wealth!

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