Atelier · February 2, 2007

Friday in the atelier: “Comparisons” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was probably the most successful painter of the Victorian era; certainly he was the most successful in England. He was a prolific painter who specialized in paintings of classical history, including Egyptian and Roman settings. Alma-Tadema was often described as having a child-like sense of joy, as being both warm and bigger than life. It was hard to not like him as soon as you met him.

Born in Friesland in the Netherlands, he was given the name of his Godfather, Laurens Alma, to which his family name, Tadema, was added. He later changed his first name to the more English spelling of Lawrence. The Art Renewal Center has an excellent biography on him, and goes into much more detail than I am willing to write.

He was a master at painting marble and flowers, and voraciously studied historical artifacts from Egypt and Pompeii in order to get the details exactly correct in his paintings. Often Alma-Tadema would repaint a detail 5 or ten times until it met his approval. As you can see in the painting “Sappho and Alcaeus” he was an expert at rendering hard materials like marble and metals. A good example of his ability with plants and flowers can be seen in his painting, “Among the Ruins”.

I really had a hard time deciding which of Alma-Tadema’s works I would show as an example. I finally settled on this cropped detail of the painting, “Comparisons”, where again Alma-Tadema’s skill in painting hard, reflective marble is apparent. This is balanced with the soft portrayal of the women two lovely women. The painting that I use in the header of my blog is from Alma-Tadema’s painting, “The Discourse” – which is itself a wonderfully detailed combination of art and Roman history. I’m showing a cropped detail of that painting here.

In his later life Alma-Tadema was active in theatre design, and also in the design of furniture.

In the tragedy of most Victorian era painters, and all Romantic Realism painters, by the end of the Victorian era in 1901 several influential and self-important art critics started to deride Alma-Tadema’s works in favor of Post-Impressionism and Cubism. (“Modern” art.) His paintings were shunned and could not be sold even for a fraction of their worth; almost wiping out this wonderful legacy merely because it was deemed ‘technical’ by so-called experts.

But even as his art was shunned by collectors, Hollywood saw his worth and used Alma-Tadema’s paintings as a sort of ‘blueprint’ when recreating accurate Roman architecture on movie sets. The sets for the movies “Ben Hur”, “Cleopatra” and “The Ten Commandments” were all based upon Alma-Tadema’s paintings.

In the last 3 decades his work has again become popular, and is once again drawing high prices at auction. I have no idea how many paintings he created, or how many are available online, but there is a wealth of them – and they are all worth your viewing.