Alma-Tadema: profile of a Past President of the RBSA

He fell out of favour in art circles, with critic John Ruskin denouncing him as ‘the worst painter of the 19th Century’… but his paintings today provide the inspiration for film directors and set designers.

Lauren Turner looks at Alma-Tadema’s lifelong romance with the classical world…

 

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was a Dutch painter renowned for his paintings depicting classical civilisation. He settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life here.

It was visits to Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii in 1863 that would influence his art for the coming decades, after a brief preoccupation with Merovingian themes in his early career.

Alma-Tadema was especially intrigued by the ruins of Pompeii, where he studied the landscape and architecture. He became obsessed with painting scenes from the ancient world; particularly Greece and Rome. He would paint detailed flora, incredibly realistic marble and metals, as well as stunning depictions of the Mediterranean Sea. His skill with marble depictions was so great that he was called the ‘marbellous painter.’

A T 1
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Silver Favourites (1903), Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England.

 

Alma-Tadema was a perfectionist, and repeatedly reworked his art until it met his high standards. He was sensitive to every architectural detail of his work and it was this precise dedication to his art which earned him recognition.

His paintings were successful enough that he was one of the highest paid Victorian painters, earning enough money to live in the London suburb of St John’s Wood, where he remodelled his home to replicate a Roman villa. By 1871 he had befriended most of the major Pre-Raphaelite painters and it was possibly due to their influence that he brightened his palette and lightened his brushwork.

Unconscious Rivals 1893
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Unconscious Rivals (1893), Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, England

 

He was appointed as President of the RBSA between 1883-1884. During this period he revisited Pompeii and spent time analysing and photographing the site. He was able to significantly increase his understanding of daily Roman life, and his paintings integrated many legitimate ancient objects.

One of the paintings to come out of this excursion, and one of his most famous, is The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). This painting was based on the life of debauched Roman Emperor, Heliogabalus and depicts the Emperor suffocating his guests under a cascade of rose petals.

The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) Private Collection

 

In 1899, Alma-Tadema was knighted, only the eighth artist from the Continent to receive the honour. During his later years, he painted less because of his obsession with decorating is new home, although he still managed to produce ambitious pieces such as The Finding of Moses (1904).

The Finding of Moses 1904
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Finding of Moses (1904) Private Collection

 

After his death, his paintings were increasingly denounced. His work was revived in the 1960s, re-evaluated for its importance in the evolution of English art.

Alma-Tadema is now regarded as one of the principal classic-subject painters of the nineteenth century. His dedication to depicting the ancient world in his paintings led to Hollywood directors using his work as source material for their vision of the ancient world in films like: Cleopatra (1934), Ben Hur (1926) and as inspiration for the interior of the Cair Paravel castle in The Chronicles of Nania (2005).

By Lauren Turner

 

Banner image: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, ‘Dedication to Bacchus (1889)’, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany: given by J H Schröder, 1910

 

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