On paper, the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was part of the art establishment – a Royal Academician, a knight of the realm and a member of the Order of Merit, with a lucrative career that brought him fame and substantial financial rewards. Scratch the surface however and you find a Dutchman (born Lourens Alma Tadema), whose artistic career took him from his home country the Netherlands through Belgium and finally to Britain where he spent the last 40 odd years of his life.
The exhibition Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is a comprehensive survey of his life and career and using the Leighton House Museum as a venue was an inspired choice as it gives one an idea and feel of the studio-residences that Alma-Tadema created in London with his family. The ground floor rooms display paintings from the beginning of Alma-Tadema’s career, where his early paintings were heavily influenced by artists from the Golden Age of Dutch art such as Rembrandt, David Teniers the Younger and Nicholas Maes, as exemplified by portraits that he painted of members of his family. In the 1850s, he turned to historical painting, specialising in medieval subjects. Following his marriage to a French woman (Pauline Gressin Dumoulin) and during their honeymoon in Italy, the places they visited such as Rome and Pompeii provided new inspiration for his art – everyday life set in ancient Rome with titles such as Pomona Festival and The Flower Market. While Alma-Tadema ensured that his rendering of the interiors and clothing were as accurate as possible, some details especially the faces are very contemporary, as if the people depicted are playing at dressing up.
Alma-Tadema’s development as an artist is chronicled in the upstairs room. In 1869, his wife Pauline died and while in London seeking medical treatment he was invited to the home of the artist Ford Maddox Brown where he met Laura Theresa Epps and promptly fell in love with her. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and his growing feelings for Miss Epps influenced his decision to settle in Britain permanently and he married her in 1871; following which they acquired their first marital home near Regent’s Park (Townshend House). Laura became an artist in her own right and throughout the second floor there are paintings by her which show the influence of the Dutch masters and her specialisation in genre painting. There are also portraits that Alma-Tadema did of his wife and children that underscored them as a close and loving family unit.
Once Alma-Tadema settled in Britain, he became acquainted with artists from the Pre-Raphaelite movement and his colour palette changed; the darker tones of his Dutch and Belgian years giving way to the light hues influenced by his trips to Italy and his association with Pre-Raphaelite artists. By the 1880s, he was well established in his adapted country – garlanded with honours and awards as well as his paintings being well-received. In 1883, the Alma-Tademas bought a large house in St John’s Wood (located in Grove End Road) which also housed his studio. The interior of the house was done in the Roman style which served as his backdrop for many of his paintings.
During this period, Alma-Tadema also was commissioned to paint portraits and his portrait of the Polish pianist and future prime minister and diplomat Ignacy Jan Paderewski is a stark contrast to his historical paintings. While the colours are unmistakably Alma-Tadema, the rendition is almost impressionistic which showed that Alma-Tadema was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. The same versatility can also be seen in the few landscapes that he painted, mostly while on holiday in Italy and from the view of his house in Grove End Road. The Italian paintings especially are notable for the skill with which the painter depicts the sunlight on flesh, marble and sea: paintings such as A Solicitation emit a tangible sunlit warmth and ease.
Despite his dabbling in portraiture and landscape painting, Alma-Tadema was primarily known for his historical painting. There were recurring elements in his work such as the prevalence of blue skies, white marble and vistas as exemplified by A Solicitation and Pleading. By the later phase of his career, Alma-Tadema had crystallised the elements that characterised his work: the sea, alluring women, classical sculpture, rich textures and flowers. He was known for his attention to detail and accuracy to the best of his ability (which was aided by trips to Italy and Egypt as well as informing himself of new developments in archaeology) all of which are evident in his most famous works such as Coign of Vantage, The Triumph of Titus: AD71 and The Roses of Heliogabalus. The latter is particularly interesting as it pretty much encapsulates almost all of Alma-Tadema’s elements and USP. However, I find the study much more interesting and convincing than the finished product; while the actual painting is technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing there is none of the sense of urgency and panic as the guests are being suffocated by the avalanche of the flowers streaming over them: they seem to be wholly relaxed about their fate. In contrast however, the study for The Roses of Heliogabalus has more of the sense of the violence and suffering inflicted on the guests as demonstrated by the contortions of the body as the guests struggled to escape the shower of rose petals that threatens to engulf them.
By the time of Alma-Tadema’s death in 1912, his paintings and style had fallen out of fashion, supplanted by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, post-Impressionism and Cubism. For most of the 20th century he fell into obscurity but while Alma-Tadema wasn’t exactly a household name, his paintings gained a second lease of life in cinema. They became influential in how filmmakers brought the ancient world to life in cinema; one look at The Death of the First-Born and I was immediately reminded of the same scene in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) where the same muted colours and subdued lighting used by Alma-Tadema found its way into the film. More recently, Sir Ridley Scott was also influenced by Alma-Tadema for his film Gladiator (2000) where the scenes of gladiatorial combat are reminiscent of A Pyrrhic Dance and the costumes worn were inspired by the women depicted in various paintings dotted around the exhibition.
While some might think that Alma-Tadema’s paintings are clichéd and only fit to decorate biscuit and chocolate tins, this exhibition shows that he was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. That said, his main body of work was all about the ancient world and the way he brought it to life does show that Alma-Tadema was indeed an artist “at home in antiquity”.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is on at the Leighton House Museum until 29 October 2017. For more information please visit the website https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum/almatademaathome.aspx?gclid=CIWW4KCZ8tYCFeaT7QodjWsNxg
The bloggers visited the exhibition on 4 October 2017. We would also like to thank Ana Garcia of the Marketing and PR Department of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for permission to use the images in this blog.