Friday, 20 March 2015

Alma Tadema / A Victorian, languid, meticulous reconstruction of the “Classical World”

 Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema,  (8 January 1836 – 25 June 1912)
Alma-Tadema was among the most financially successful painters of the Victorian era, though never matching Edwin Henry Landseer. For over sixty years he gave his audience exactly what they wanted: distinctive, elaborate paintings of beautiful people in classical settings. His incredibly detailed reconstructions of ancient Rome, with languid men and women posed against white marble in dazzling sunlight provided his audience with a glimpse of a world of the kind they might one day construct for themselves at least in attitude if not in detail. As with other painters, the reproduction rights for prints were often worth more than the canvas, and a painting with its rights still attached may have been sold to Gambart for £10,000 in 1874; without rights it was sold again in 1903, when Alma-Tadema's prices were actually higher, for £2,625. Typical prices were between £2,000 and £3,000 in the 1880s, but at least three works sold for between £5,250 and £6,060 in the 1900s. Prices held well until the general collapse of Victorian prices in the early 1920s, when they fell to the hundreds, where they remained until the 1960s; by 1969 £4,600 had been reached again (the huge effect of inflation must of course be remembered for all these figures).
His artistic legacy almost vanished. As attitudes of the public in general and the artists in particular became more sceptical of the possibilities of human achievement, his paintings were increasingly denounced. He was declared "the worst painter of the 19th century" by John Ruskin, and one critic even remarked that his paintings were "about worthy enough to adorn bourbon boxes." After this brief period of being actively derided, he was consigned to relative obscurity for many years. Only since the 1960s has Alma-Tadema's work been re-evaluated for its importance within the nineteenth century, and more specifically, within the evolution of English art.
He is now regarded as one of the principal classical-subject painters of the nineteenth century whose works demonstrate the care and exactitude of an era mesmerised by trying to visualise the past, some of which was being recovered through archaeological research.
Alma-Tadema's meticulous archaeological research, including research into Roman architecture (which was so thorough that every building featured in his canvases could have been built using Roman tools and methods) led to his paintings being used as source material by Hollywood directors in their vision of the ancient world for films such as D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934), and most notably of all, Cecil B. DeMille's epic remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). Indeed, Jesse Lasky Jr., the co-writer on The Ten Commandments, described how the director would customarily spread out prints of Alma-Tadema paintings to indicate to his set designers the look he wanted to achieve. The designers of the Oscar-winning Roman epic Gladiator used the paintings of Alma-Tadema as a central source of inspiration.


John J. Tackett said...

Terrific! Although a slightly more Romantic viewpoint than I would have preferred, the classical details are greatly appreciated.
_ The Devoted Classicist

Brummagem Joe said...

I personally like Tadema's paintings and they were very popular at the time although many regarded them soft porn.