Lawrence Alma-Tadema  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (January 8, 1836, Dronrijp, the Netherlands.- June 25, 1912 Wiesbaden, Germany ) was one of the finest and most distinctive of the Victorian painters. Dutch born, he moved to London in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. He was a classical-subject painter and became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with langorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of dazzling blue Mediterranean sea and sky.

Reputation

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was arguably the most successful painter of the Victorian era. 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.

Being a creature of his time, when the Victorian period ended so did his marketability. By the end of his career, art such as Alma-Tadema’s was no longer appreciated as it had been before. New movements in art had begun and his imagery, which was thought of as “Victorians in togas,” fell out of favor. The end of Alma-Tadema's life saw the rise of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism, of which he heartily disapproved. As his pupil John Collier wrote, 'it is impossible to reconcile the art of Alma-Tadema with that of Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso.

Paintings which once would have sold for £10,000 a few years earlier were now practically impossible to sell at all. Some of his paintings could have been purchased for as little as £20 at that time. His artistic legacy almost vanished. As attitudes of the public in general and the artists in particular became more skeptical 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 in the last thirty years has Alma-Tadema’s work been reevaluated 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 mesmerized by trying to visualize 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.

In the late 1960s, the revival of interest in Victorian painting gained impetus, and a number of well-attended exhibitions were held. Allen Funt, the creator and host of the American version of the television show Candid Camera, was a collector of Alma-Tadema paintings at a time when the artist's reputation in the 20th century was at its nadir. After Funt was robbed by his accountant (who subsequently committed suicide), he was forced to sell his collection at Sotheby’s in London in November 1973. From this sale, the interest in Alma-Tadema was re-awakened. In 1960, the Newman Gallery firstly tried to sell, then give away (without success) one of his most celebrated works ‘The Finding of Moses,’ (1904). The initial purchaser had paid £5250 for it on its completion, but when the same picture was auctioned at Christies in New York in May 1995, it sold for £1.75 million.




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