Antiquity manifest : Laurens Alma Tadema’s perfectionism means that today his paintings may be the nearest you’ll ever get to actually seeing life in the ancient world.
Laurens Alma Tadema (1836-1912) was the son of a public notary in the village of Dronrijp in Friesland, Holland. At sixteen he enrolled at the art academy in Antwerp. A visit to Pompeii in 1863 was the catalyst for the life consuming love that Alma Tadema developed for both Classical art and architecture. This love fused seamlessly in both style and content with his own precise, academic manner of painting. It was a to be a long & fertile marriage. One made in Romantic Orientalism art heaven.
In 1870, he moved to London, which was to remain his home, becoming a denizen (permanent resident) and changing his name to Lawrence. He was popular and highly successful, receiving a knighthood in 1899. In addition to his depictions of life in Antiquity, he also painted portraits and theatre decors. In 1902, Alma Tadema visited Egypt, which gave his work a new impulse. Alma Tadema’s historical accuracy was remarkable for his time. Today his paintings are considered the reliable reference for film production companies, their art directors & stylists for historical movies.
In this scene from the biblical book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron (upper right) are visiting the pharaoh, who is mourning his son. The Egyptian ruler’s son had died from one of the plagues sent by God to secure the Israelites’ release from Egypt. The gloom of the painting reflects the father’s intense grief. If you look long and hard into the dark, golden murk you can discern everything. In detail.
It was his representations of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman scenes in particular that made Alma-Tadema one of the most popular painters of the 19th-century . In this picture, full of archaeological details, a woman is mourning beside the inner mummy case containing the body of her husband. His sarcophagus stands at left, while priests and singers lament the departed.
GREECE & ROME
Alma-Tadema Worked on Spring for 4 years and, at the bottom of its heavily gilded architectural frame (which he also designed) he inscribed four lines of poetry from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s 1865 poem, Dedication.
In a land of clear colours and stories, / In a region of shadowless hours, / Where earth has a garment of glories / And a murmur of musical flowers.
The Roman Emperor in the title is, or was the degenerate Caligula and this is a crime scene. In AD 41, the debauched ruler was murdered. Gratus, a member of the Praetorian guard, is the one draw open the green curtain revealing the terrified Claudius who is being hailed as emperor tight now and on the spot. At the foot of the white marble statue in the middle, lie the bodies of Caligula, his wife Caesonia, their young daughter and a bystander. The bloody handprints at the foot of the statue show a death struggle has transpired. The setting, the Hermaeum, was an apartment in the Palace where Claudius had sought refuge.
The Roses of Heliogabalus is arguably his most famous painting. It’s certainly the most explosive in terms of colour. It’s also rather racy. It’s a party scene from the life of the debauched Roman emperor Elagabalus. The emperor is suffocating his guests at an orgy under a cascade of rose petals. Alma-Tadema had the blossoms sent weekly to his London studio from the French Riviera for four months during the winter of 1887–1888.
Alma-Tadema was an absolute perfectionist. He researched and fact checked every historical and architectural detail, sailed overseas to ancient sites. He had African flowers shipped to his studio and raced to paint them before they died. Once, after one of his paintings was rejected, he gave the canvas to a maid who used it as a table cloth. He reworked parts of paintings endlessly before they met with his own high standards. As a result, his extraordinary images are perhaps the nearest we’ll ever get to actually seeing the ancient world.
THE MIDDLE AGES
Alma-Tadema’s Education of the children of Clovis was his first major work and made his name. Even though Jan August Hendrik Leys, a painter he shared a studio with, thought the completed painting better than he had expected Alma-Tadema, wasn’t happy. He was critical of his treatment of marble, which he compared to the texture of cheese.