Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) is another of my favorite painters. He was born in the Netherlands and studied in Brussels, but in 1870 he moved to England, where he stayed. There he became a famous and wealthy painter of classical scenes, much collected by the richest men of his time. The painting above, The Baths of Caracalla (1899), is a fair introduction to his mature work: rich Romans languidly enjoying themselves in an exactly imagined scene, each detail of their clothing and their surroundings faithfully copied from classical models but the overall effect somehow more 1899 than 250.

Alma-Tadema married in 1863, just as he was starting his career, but his first wife died in 1869; little is known about their relationship because he never spoke of her again. He had already met the English woman who would become his second wife, Laura Epps, and soon after his wife's death he moved to London and they began consorting. They married in 1871 and had two children; Laura, a painter herself, appears in may of his paintings.

Mary Magdalene, 1854. Not bad for an 18-year-old, hm?

Alma-Tadema had always focused on historical scenes, but this was mainly Frankish or Egyptian until he went to Pompeii in 1863. From then on, he painted mainly Rome. Once he was rich enough he built himself a villa modeled on those at Pompeii, and he filled it with Roman and Greek antiquities. Above, detail from Lesbia Weeping over a Sparrow, 1866. Notice the fabulously detailed clothing and jewelry, and the classical details on the walls and furniture. And also the choice of scene: Alma-Tadema generally preferred the sentimental side of ancient life to the blood and thunder. So far as I can tell, he never painted a battle.

Instead he painted festivals, like the famous Spring, 1894.

And poetry readings -- A Favourite Poet, 1888.

And baths. Tepidarium, 1881.

And people just lazing around. Detail from A Roman Art Lover, 1868.  He loved the trappings of antiquity, and almost all the statues, vases, and so on were copied from original artifacts in museums, in his own collection, or in the collections of his patrons.

He had a weakness for little domestic scenes like this one, My Sister is Not In, 1879.

Alma-Tadema's critics have always objected to the pointlessness of his work. Victorian critics thought it amoral and unspiritual; modernists thought it devoid of social or political commentary; tortured artistes thought it too bland and happy. So? A Kiss, 1890.

What Alma-Tadema achieved was to put on canvas why some of us find the ancient world so aesthetically appealing. Here is a world different from our own but still recognizable, a world greatly devoted to its own notion of beauty, a world where petty problems and economic turmoil were treated with aristocratic disdain. A world devoted to equanimity, where no one doubted that the centuries old order would endure for centuries more. The problems that we moderns worry about are nowhere in evidence. Silver Favourites, 1903.

The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888. This painting depicts an infamous incident in which the emperor known as Elagabalus or Heliogabalus suffocated his dinner guests under a great rain of roses and violets. Elagabalus was much hated by the Roman elite, who accused him of bizarre religious practices, depravity, homosexuality, taking five wives (including one man), and so on; he was assassinated in 222, after just four years on the throne. Modern historians are suspicious of all the outrageous stories about him, but Elagabalus became a sort of hero to the decadents of the late 1800s. By painting this notorious scene, Alma Tadema was drawing on that controversy to scandalize his own image a little. He also let it be known that though he painted this in winter he wanted to get the rose petals just right, so he had a supply sent weekly from the Riviera. It's always nice to be reminded that artists of the past engaged in the same sort of theatrics as Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol.

The Triumph of Titus, 1885. Alma Tadema's Rome never really existed, of course. But it is a lovely dream.

Great collection of Alma-Tadema's paintings.

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