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The work of Sir Alma-Tadema, or the Victorian Classicism

Updated on July 21, 2010

Sir Alma-Tadema and his times

Among the most famous of modern classical painters who flourished in Victorian England was Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who so successfully created a picture of ancient civilization that it has not been surpassed by his followers; his works are sun-filled joyous canvases, speaking to a weary and hard-driven generation, of vanished and more placid times, when existence was less restless and more aesthetically conceived! 
Born in Holland, Alma-Tadema was thoroughly schooled in classical languages and literature before becoming an artist. In the 1850s he moved to Antwerp, where he moved in a circle of achaeologists who included George Ebers, a famous Egyptologist. Their friendship inspired the painter to begin painting scenes from Ancient Egypt (his celebrated Pastimes in Ancient Egypt contains accurate representations of Egyptian deatil, architecture, décor, and furniture, and his sketch-books were crammed with drawings of Egyptian objects). The shift toward the Greco-Roman world began in 1862, when Alma-Tadema went to London to see the great International Exhibition, where the star attraction was the Parthenon Marbles purchased by the state from Lord Elgin. Like so many of his predecessors, he moved also to Italy for a two-year stay in 1876. A tour of Pompeii, the city that was both Roman and Greek, revolutionized the themes of his paintings. For decades afterward he spent his winters painting in his London studio and summered in Naples. Beavering away in Naples and in the halls of its Archaeological Museum, he studied sea, sky, and the fountains, statues, tables, beds and vases discovered underground at Herculaneum, Stabiae and Pompeii, before returning to paint them in London. In addition, striving for authenticity, he assembled a personal collection of 5,300 photographs of ancient monuments and archaelogical artefacts, mostly from Pompeii.
He was one of the leading exponents of Victorian classicism: the Classicists were closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, many artists being influenced by both styles to some degree. Both movements were highly romantic and were inspired by similar historical and mythological themes- the key distinction being that the Classicists epitomized the rigid Academic standards of painting, while the Pre-Raphaelites were initially formed as a rebellion against those same standards. Men who endeavoured to revive the more intimate life of Greece and Rome upon their canvas, and who in France went by the name of neo-Greeks or Pompeists. This trend was a reaction from the older classical school that was headed by Jacques Louis David, whose productions were distinguished by a certain austere dignity of conception, by elaborate accuracy of form, but, on the other hand, were generally cold and unreal in sentiment, unpleasantly monotonous in colouring, and defective in their arrangement of light and shade.
Victorian Classicism was a British form of historical painting inspired by the art and architecture of Classical Greece and Rome. In the 19th century, an increasing number of Western Europeans made the "Grand Tour" to Mediterranean lands. There was a great popular interest in the region's lost civilizations and exotic cultures, and this interest fuelled the rise of Classicism in Britain, and Orientalism, which was mostly centered in continental Europe. Both Pre-Raphaelitism and Japonisme made important contributions to Alma-Tadema's stylistic development into the late 1860s and 1870s. By 1871 he had met and befriended most of the major Pre-Raphaelite painters and it was in part due to their influence that the artist brightened his palette, variegated hues and lighter brushwork. The Classical painters, more accustomed to the audacity of line in Attic vases and the perspective and colour of Pompeian frescos, were more able to utilize the Japanese print. Both these influences were dominant in the development of Tadema's style.
Tadema was arguably the most successful painter of the Victorian era. Alma-Tadema was, at that time, the only artist in England to paint archaeologically oriented domestic antique genre. Alma-Tadema was more closely related to the aesthetic cult than were most of the Classicists. With Albert Moore, Thomas Armstrong and Walter Crane, he was concerned with design and formal values for the apprehension of truth and beauty, but associated the idea of beauty with idealism and moral purpose.

The wonders of the Ancient world

Alma-Tadema, in fact, is credited with having solved the problem of the picture of antique manners in the most authentic fashion in the province of painting. Alma-Tadema had made a speciality of artistic archaeology of Ancient Rome. In working from his knowledge he had reformed the whole artistic ideas of the time. He has so studied the life of old Rome that he had for his own purposes reconstructed it. He has peopled the past, rebuilt its towns, refurnished its houses and rekindled the flame upon the sacrificial altars. In other words, this famous painter called to life amid London smoke and fog the sacrifices of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and leads us pictorially through the streets of old Athens, recostructing the temples, altars and dwellings, just as they once were. Alma-Tadema showed the lives of Pompeians of all walks of life. His Pompeians play music, recline on pictoresque balconies against the sea, and loll about the public baths in archaeologically correct settings (his In the Tepidarium replicates the same hall of the Stabian baths at Pompeii): so, the characters he represents do not simply pose in stiff togas or chitons, but move, and breath forth their enjoyment of life. The Dionysiac abandon of maenads, for example, is a recurring theme in paintings by Alma-Tadema. In Autumn: A vintage festival, he depicts a drunken maenad crowned with ivy and dressed in a leopard skin, eyes half-closed in ecstasy, brandishing a torch; poised on one foot with the other knee lifted, she is in suspended motion, momentarily framed within the painting but also represented as if she is about to move beyond its frame: a mobile figure, and a figure for mobility that cannot be contained. Her pose recalls Greek maenads as they were represented in antiquity, leaping high with their heads thrown back, or rushing forward, thyrsos in hand. In later paintings, the artist represented maenads in a wide range of movements and poses: sprawled on the floor, dancing madly, or playing musical instruments, all prompting Ruskin to condemn the "Bacchanalian phrenzy, which M. Alma-Tadema seems to hold it his heavenly mission to pourtray." For both smog and the Victorian era's constipated morality, he offered the remedy of a fugue into an ancient Pompeian reverie of clear skies and flower-bedecked balconies, where wondrous, young women are always present in the dishabille of Roman draperies.
The bishop of Carlisle was vexed by the Alma-Tadema picture; he wrote a letter to a friend: "for a living artist to exhibit a life-sized almost photographic representation of a beautiful naked woman strikes my inartistic mind as somewhat if not very mischievous." When the picture was exhibited in Liverpool 1878, a whole series of outraged letters was published in the press, often signed with such sobriquets as "an offended father" expressing strong moral objections to the beautiful painting and its display. When Alma-Tadema, protected by his social position, his artistic reputation and the classical subject, opened a space where desire may be viewed, the response was either silence,  rage, a careful turning of the head, or a retreat into humor.
The artist in fact presents an extraordinary re-enactment of the Ancient Roman (and, to a lesser degree, the Ancient Greek) world, with all its ancient furnishings, refined garments, and interiors decorated with fine marble and dazzling flowers. The intimate life of the Roman women has often attracted Alma Tadema's brush. We see this again and again in Well-protected Slumber, in Quiet Pets, in Departure, the scene suggested by Theocritus's fifteenth Idyll, in The Bath, in Apodyterium (or women's disrobing-room), and it is also accentuated in the Shrine of Venus, a scene in a Roman hairdresser's shop. His pictures might almost be said to be a series of instantaneous reproductions of the life of the Roman patricians. The life aim of his men and women seems to be to exist happily and placidly, untroubled by material cares or disturbing emotions.
With a sophisticated technique and meticulous draughtsmanship, he evokes the dream of a world populated by women of introspective beauty, in which the physical reality of the depictions forms a contrast with Neoclassical idealistic detachment, and renders the nostalgia for the ancient world poignant and entirely believable. The artist, with his detailed architectural and literary knowledge of the classical ancient world, succeeds in bringing to life a world forever lost, in a style hallmarked by aesthetic grace, in which everyday scenes take on the character of mythology: through his views, Alma-Tadema provided Victorian society a glimpse into the classical world, allowing them to identify with its inhabitants and imagine its wonder.

Bringing a lost world to life again

It was not until 1863, when he first went to Italy, that he may be said to have discovered his archaelogical mission. The visit to Italy was most beneficial to Alma-Tadema. His subsequent work continued to grow and develop, and where he had previously felt obliged to include large passages of Roman motifs for the sake of authenticity, his work now became more in keeping with the patrician spirit of antiquity and less a glossary of archaeological artifacts. The Roman journey also inspired a number of small canvases which were to be the basis of later oils and water-colours.
How the old Romans dressed, how their armies were equipped and attired, became the object of his painstaking study, as did everything that might enable him to bring antiquity back to life in so far as it lay in the power of his art. Thanks to the archaeological and literary deep knowledge of the classic antiquity, Alma-Tadema was, in a finely aesthetic tendency, able to bring a world now lost to life again, where the daily scenes assumes the shades of the myth.
Muther records: "He explored the ruins of the temples, and he grew familiar with the privileges of the priests, the method of worship of the sacrifices and of the festal processions. There was no monument of brass or marble, no wall painting, no pictured vase nor mosaic, no sample of ancient arts, of pottery, stone-cutting, or work in gold, that he did not study."
There is record plenty of marble and brass and iron and copper, in silver and gold, in jewels and crystals- in fact in all those materials which do not yield to the ravages of time. All this the painter had studied till he knew it. He was familiar with the kinds of marble and stone used in Roman architecture, statuary and domestic service. The kind of glass and crystal, of armour and arms, of furniture, of lighting, sacerdotal and public and domestic service. He knew how a velabrum should be made and of what, and how adorned, how it should be put up and secured. And yet how exquisite in their archaeological and aesthetic perfection are these accessories. No wonder that in a picture from Alma Tadema's hand we look quite as much for the marbles, the hangings, the stuffs, the mosaics, the trees, and the flowers, as for the faces of his creations. It would almost seem at times as though he had painted these accessories with even more care than he bestowed upon his men and women, as if they interested him more. Indeed, where flowers are concerned Alma Tadema seems to give to them an inner life, a very physiognomy, his flowers are inimitable, both as suggestions and as realities. Even in the choice made it is quite remarkable how there is always a peculiar fitness to the picture's theme. Is there not, for example, to note but a few instances, a tragic impress about the poppy beds in his picture of Tarquinius Superbus? Have not his red and pink oleanders a bloom and blush as fitting as that on the faces of the young lovers they shade? ' Do not the cypresses and the stone pines in his Improvisatore adumbrate all the solemn mournfulness of a Roman garden ? Is there not a sensual note in the prodigality of roses that inundates his Heliogabalus? Are they not almost arch in his Love's Missile, in Shy, to name but a few of the many pictures in which trees and flowers figure as the very embodiment of the summer of life and nature. Indeed, so exquisitely, so superbly painted are these flowers that in some of Alma Tadema's minor pictures they actually assume the upper hand, though of course unconsciously to the painter, and become the protagonists in the composition. There is one picture which he calls simply Oleanders, showing that he recognized himself how the flowers had impressed his imagination and gained precedence over the human beings with whom they were associated. Tadema's flowers are very poems, and had he painted nothing but these he would have been a great artist. It was of course inevitable that when he chose Spring as his theme the composition should be rich in the delineation of such blossoms. In this picture all the perfumed profusion of a southern May is summed up within the space of one little canvas. A bevy of matrons, maidens and children precedes what was probably a sacred procession. They went their way through the marble-paved streets of Imperial Rome to some temple shrine, therein to celebrate the rites of joy due to the newly awakened season. Flower-crowned are the fair human blossoms, flower-laden their garments, flower-filled the "offering-platters" they are about to lay on the altar of the Gods. The house-tops, those fair flat house-tops of Southern Italy, the spaces between the columns, the loggias and the porticoes, are crowded with eager spectators. These, too, are flower-wreathed and flower-laden. Joy-filled, spring-intoxicated, they rain down upon the gay procession beneath, flowers and blossoms in glad and multi-coloured abundance. Marble and flowers, sunshine and blue skies, all life's gladness is here embodied by a painter's loving brush.
Happily, Alma Tadema is saved from being a cold, unattractive antiquarian painter by his rare keen sense of beauty, and here again we come in contact with the difficulty of ranging him as we might range his classic brethen. The spectator who misses the allusions, the meaning of his subject-pictures, nevertheless finds matter for full and intense enjoyment as he contemplates the lovely fabrics, the cool half-shades, the clear sunlight, the exquisite flowers, the heat-saturated sea and sky, the marbles and the bric-à-brac that appear on almost every canvas, and are painted with a skill, a consummate science that captivates the connoisseur, and with a reality that delights the uninstructed crowd.
"The artistic world has certainly been rendered the sunnier by his works."


Submit a Comment

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Many, many thanks 2uesday, your comments are always very kind and I'm so glad for your words of appreciation! In fact, he is one of my favourite painters too, his artworks are so full of light and also so perfect in all details...sometimes, it seems to me that he should have possessed a 'time-machine' and that he has took some photos in the remote past! :)

  • 2uesday profile image


    8 years ago

    I will return to this hub so I have book-marked it. it is incredibly beautiful, so well put together and this is one of my favourite artists. Thank you, your pages here are always amazing.


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