Alma-Tadema the artist

<em>Under the Roof of the Blue Ionian Weather</em>

L. Alma-Tadema, Under the Roof of the Blue Ionian Weather, 1901

Lawrence Alma Tadema was born Lorenz Tadema on January 8, 1836, in the small but wealthy village of Dronrijp, Friesland (The Netherlands). Tadema attended the gymnasium of Leeuwarden, where he was first exposed to the literature and history of ancient Greece and Rome, on which he would draw for the duration of his career. At sixteen, Tadema began his training at the Academy of Art in Antwerp, becoming the pupil of Van Leys, whose style had considerable influence on the young artist. In 1863, Tadema, newly married, visited Italy for the first time. The artist’s observations of the first systematic excavations at Pompeii inspired him to create paintings that depicted genre scenes set in Antiquity. These travels were followed by several years of productive work. In 1867, Tadema, weary perhaps of the Classical quotidian, turned to Classical historical subjects. (He did not, however, abandon genre scenes.) First among these was The Praetorians Summoning Claudius to the Imperial Throne After the Murder of Caligula (1867). This period marked a trend that would continue to dominate his art: the depiction of ancient Greece and Rome.[1]

Possibly acting on the advice of the art dealer Ernest Gambart, Tadema moved in 1870 to England, where his works were better appreciated and sold for greater prices,[2] though the immediate cause was probably the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. In London, he settled in Townshend House, Regent's Park, where he soon resumed his artistic production.[3] The popularity of Tadema’s art in Britain was connected to his rendering of genre scenes from the imagined lives of Ancient Greek and Roman elites. His Victorian patrons were able to recognize themselves, albeit in Greek chitons or Roman togas, in the characters Tadema painted. His images frequently depict beautiful young people reading poetry (A Reading from Homer, 1885) and making music (Under the Roof of the Blue Ionian Weather, 1898-1901). Often, he painted young women gossiping leisurely or admiring the fabulous vistas around them (Unconscious Rivals, 1893, and Expectations, 1885). No less frequently did he depict scenes of young love (Amo Te, Ama Me, 1881). All these themes are characteristic of Victorian culture.

Amo Te, Ama Me

L. Alma-Tadema, Amo Te, Ama Me, 1881

Amo Te, Ama Me provides a good case study of the painter’s work. This painting features all the elements that Tadema was known for in connection with his ancient genre scenes. The composition is dominated by a marble terrace, which seems to glow from the strikingly white light of the Mediterranean. With its parallel bands of clear, light-blue sky, and a perfectly calm sea of darker blue, the composition calls to mind Japanese prints, Aesthetic paintings, and early Impressionism. In the foreground are two beautiful young lovers. The young man seems to have sneaked in to see his beloved and offers her a bouquet of peonies, which she contemplates, as a bewitching blush of love spreads over her cheeks. But for the setting and costumes, a more Victorian scene can hardly be conceived of. The harmonious marriage of Victorian culture to the Classical setting was the secret of Tadema’s success.

During the 1870s, Tadema made several trips to Italy. In 1874 he visited Rome, where he painted several works that won him a gold medal in Berlin, followed by the award of the Prussian Order of Merit in 1881.[4] In 1876, Tadema became an associate of the Royal Academy, and was elected an academician three years later.[5]

Laura Theresa (née Epps), Lady Alma-Tadema; Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Laura Theresa, Lady Alma-Tadema, and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1905

In 1884, when his photograph was taken by Mayall for Artists at Home, Tadema was a member of the Royal Academy and one of the most successful artists in London. The Mayall photograph is by no means the only portrait of the artist that we have.[6] Among the likenesses of Tadema are the collective portraits of prominent members of the Academy such as G. Grenville Manton’s The Royal Academy Conversazione (1891) and Henry Jamyn Brooks’ Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888 (1889), which depict Tadema among his colleagues and acquaintances. Tadema was famous enough to merit a place in the world of caricature. One example is Carlo Pellegrini’s chromolithograph, published in Vanity Fair in 1879. Photographs of Tadema by the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (1877) and Robert White Thrupp (1888) are the most well-known likenesses of the painter. However, one of the best photographs of the artist, in this author’s opinion, is the one of 1905 by Lena Connell (later Beatrice Cundy), which shows the artist with his second wife, Laura Theresa (née Epps). The success of this photograph lies in its odd spontaneity, as though Connell had caught the couple as they were exiting their house.

In 1886, Tadema moved to his second residence in London, in Grove End Road, St John's Wood.[7] This residence, much like Townshend House, was altered considerably to Tadema's liking. Among the most important aspects of the house was the studio, designed to simulate Mediterranean light even in the winter months.[8] When he started working in this studio, Tadema’s paintings changed: interiors of warm colors gave way to outside scenes dominated by marble architecture and set against the backdrop of Mediterranean seascapes.[9] In the 1880s, as in the 1870s, his art production was devoted to Roman subjects. This sustained interest in Roman Antiquity was supported by a large library and an extensive reference collection.[10]

Tadema’s last decades were less productive, though he did participate and win awards in the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 and 1900.[11] The decoration of his new house and his interest in theatre, not to mention his declining health, reduced the time he dedicated to painting.[12] In 1890, he became a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. His knighthood (1899) and the Order of Merit he received in 1905 testify to his high status in Victorian society. Tadema died on June 25, 1912, in Wiesbaden, Germany, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, on July 5. The same year, a memorial exhibition was held at the Royal Academy in his honor.[13]

Ekaterina Koposova

<em>A Reading from Homer</em>

L. Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, Philadelphia Museum of Art

[1] Georg Ebers, Lawrence Alma Tadema: His Life and Works (London: W. S. Gottsberger, 1886), 1-44.

[2] Thomas Bayer and John Page, “Commoditization and the Artist as Producer: Product Differentiation and the Domestication of Pictures,” in The Development of the Art Market in England: Money as Muse, 1730–1900 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011), 160.

[3] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Tadema, Sir Lawrence Alma-,” by Rosemary Barrow, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, last modified 2011, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30396

[4] Ebers, Lawrence Alma Tadema, 67.

[5] Oxford DNB, s.v. “Tadema.”

[6] National Portrait Gallery, s.v. “Lawrence Alma-Tadema,” accessed November 3, 2016, http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp00090/sir-lawrence-alma-tadema?search=sas&sText=tadema

[7] Giles Walkley, “Decadent St John’s Wood: Grove End Road,” in Artists’ Houses in London 1764–1914 (Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, VT: Scolar Press, 1994), 127.

[8] Oxford DNB, s.v. “Tadema;” Walkley, Artists' Houses, 128-32.

[9] Oxford DNB, s.v. “Tadema.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Rosemary Barrow, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (London: Phaidon Press, 2003), 165-69.

[13] Oxford DNB, s.v. “Tadema.”

LAWRENCE ALMA TADEMA, R.A.
Alma-Tadema the artist