Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was a Dutch-born artist who moved to England in 1870 and made it his new home, becoming one of the most popular and prolific British-based painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His reputation went rather into eclipse later on, but his impact on the popular image of the Roman and Egyptian worlds has been huge, both because his paintings were so frequently reproduced as prints (he was very canny in his use of this medium), but also through the widespread copying of his already-cinematic compositions by cinematographers, from the earliest days of film right down to recent epics like Gladiator. Even if you are not familiar with the name, if you have even a passing interest in the ancient world, Alma-Tadema probably had a fairly profound influence on the way you look at it, consciously or not. You will likely have seen a number of his paintings; you will certainly have seen films or reconstructions influenced by him.
If you want to check my assertions, there is no better way than visiting the current exhibition “Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity” at the Leighton House Museum in London (there is still just time to go; I highly recommend it). The exhibition draws its paintings from museums and galleries in Britain, the Netherlands, Mexico, Poland, the US and elsewhere, so even if you miss it, there are plenty of opportunities to encounter his work, depending on where you live.
Alma-Tadema’s attraction lies in the way he brings the Roman world (which he depicted far more often than the Greek) to life. His pictures, usually interiors, evoke a real-feeling ancient world. His rendering of marble is stunningly good – essential for a painter of this historical period! – and the drapery is amazingly shot through with realistically-depicted patterns and embroidery. His ability to create believable artistic space was commended officially by professional architects, and architect was just one additional profession contemporaries felt he could also have mastered. He also designed theatre sets, a fact which explains his lasting appeal to film-makers. That understanding of space, and how to use it dramatically, gives his historical paintings a life which separates them from some of the stiffer nineteenth century examples. His great humanity – he always surrounded himself with people, was exceedingly clubbable and (as the exhibition shows) had a touchingly close and devoted relationship with his family – also comes across in the figures that populate his works. They all feel real, as if we’ve just interrupted them. We can read, or think we can, the thoughts of the coquettish girls, the cowed and dejected slaves, the besotted lovers. All this serves to really involve you in the paintings. There’s little of the melodrama that infected some of his contemporaries.
For classicists and ancient historians like me, there’s the additional thrill of Alma-Tadema’s attention to detail. There are lots of accurate features, whether they be specific locations or, more often, details of the architecture, the inscriptions, the pots, the clothes or the Pompeian graffiti. Looking at some of Alma-Tadema’s paintings is like meeting old friends in a crowd, sometimes. This isn’t to say they are archaeological reconstructions, exactly. There are lots of features that just do not fit, that are clearly Victorian – but that is the case with a lot of visual or written attempts to imagine yourself into the ancient world, whether by artists or historians, and I think most who approach these paintings will rather be delighted by the ‘true’ details and their interplay with Alma-Tadema’s own world than inclined to tut at the anachronisms.
I certainly came away feeling buoyed by this exhibition, and my impression was that those around me were also given a fillip by it. If you can’t get to it, you should be able to find some works in a gallery or museum not too far away from you. I hope you get the chance; they are a joy to behold.
The exhibition is on at Leighton House, Holland Park Road, London until 29 October 2017 (easiest tube station Kensington High Street). Entrance is £14, £7 to National Trust members.