Stephens on Alma-Tadema
F. G. Stephens opens his narrative of the life of Lawrence Alma-Tadema with a brief history of the artist’s family and the Dutch province where he was born. Stephens attempts to anglicize the artist’s name by explaining that, in English, his “name means Adamson” (29). Otherwise, Stephens starts with the usual description of the artist’s early talent for artmaking. The anecdote concerning Tadema’s first exposure to drawing differs among his biographers. Whereas Stephens tells us that Tadema’s “vocation was found when a friend gave him a box of water-colours” (29), another of Tadema’s biographers, Georg Ebers, gives a more colorful account: “Merely for the sake of occupation, [Tadema] had shared the drawing lessons given to his older brothers, and while the teacher was sketching for him a block used as a model, he had seized his hand and showed him that a certain line ought not to run as it did, but the opposite way.” Ebers claims to have heard the story from the artist himself. Interestingly, this biography was published only two years after Artists at Home.
The biographers also differ in their emphasis on which of Tadema’s parents was responsible for trying to make the artist pursue, as Stephens puts it, “one of the learned professions.” Stephens blames the mother (29), while Ebers suggests it was the father’s wish (adhered to by the mother) that the boy should, like himself, become a lawyer.
Stephens continues by tracing Tadema’s development as an artist. According to this author, Tadema was strongly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s treatise on painting, and had completed two portraits (of his sister and himself) by the time his family allowed him to devote himself to painting. Stephens describes how Tadema pursued his training in the Royal Academy of Antwerp and mentions his teachers — Messrs. Wappers and Dyckmanns. He also refers to a professor in Archeology, a Mr. De Taye, who guided Tadema’s studies of Antiquity. Stephens shows considerable knowledge of Tadema’s early works, some of which he describes in detail—a testament to his admiration for the artist’s works. He narrates Tadema’s first foray into the depiction of the daily life in Antiquity in his work on ancient Egyptian scenes.
Stephens points out the challenges that Tadema faced in his development as an artist, most significantly the lack of popular demand for large canvases. Tadema’s fortunes began to rise when he came under the mentorship of Baron H. Leys (1815–1869) who, both biographers agree, had considerable influence on the artist. Stephens describes Tadema’s travels and his first exhibitions in England and France in the 1860s, as well as his growing interest in ancient Roman art and life, which peaked during the artist’s trip to Italy. Stephens describes one of Tadema’s most important (and earliest) paintings of ancient Roman subjects—Catullus at Lesbia’s—which, he writes, “represented [Antiquity] with verisimilitude, learning, and technical mastery” (32). This is followed by Stephens’s inevitable list of Tadema’s most notable paintings and honors, which he concludes with a brief reference to his relocation to London, his second marriage, and the unfortunate damage to his house in 1874.
In referring to the portrait by J. P. Mayall, Stephens does not mention either of the two paintings by Tadema that are clearly visible in the photogravure (An Old Story and The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra), nor to the copy of the famous Greek sculpture Boy with Thorn. Though Stephens cites a memoir by Edmund Gosse as one of his sources, he emphasizes his own personal connection with the artist, to whom he refers as his “friend,” and from whom, he would like us to think, most of his information comes.