• ‘Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity’

    An artist who straddled two worlds in late-19th century Europe, the man who was born Lourens Alma Tadema in the Netherlands in 1836 and lived there for half his life then emigrated to England, anglicised his name (he had already added a hyphen to ensure it appeared near the beginning of catalogues) and, as Laurence Alma-Tadema, became a hugely successful and admired painter of scenes of the past. A wonderful exhibition of these works is now on at the museum formed from the home of another great artist of the period, and a friend of the Dutchman, Frederic Leighton.

    Showing talent from an early age and studying in Antwerp to further it, Alma-Tadema was then an assistant to two established painters. Works produced in his late teens on show at Leighton House Museum are as formal as one might expect from one emerging from an academic training yet have a feeling of immediacy and care; within a decade, Alma-Tadema was applying those same skills to produce group scenes that were superbly composed, featured naturalistic portrayals of the individuals within them and included highly realistic detail, much of it reproduced from the real artefact or location. All three elements would underpin his paintings from that point on.

    The subjects of these early pictures reflect Alma-Tadema’s initial field of interest, with carefully recreated streets and domestic interiors from the period of Dutch, Belgian and French history in which the Merovingians ruled (cleverly, the exhibition hangs them in the principal rooms of the house – the artist’s later Roman paintings, with their marble architecture washed by Mediterranean sun, are showing in the brightly lit exhibition space upstairs). It is here that Alma-Tadema begins to demonstrate a real command over the placement of people, objects and action in his pictures, often by using combinations of sources. Thus his Queen of Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Bishop Praetexatus borrows simultaneously from Greek friezes, mediaeval altar pieces and more modern approaches borrowed from photography to generate complex and subtle rhythms inside the frame, whereas The Visit: A Dutch Interior echoes Vermeer’s simple rooms with open windows and also the ingeniously nested views into new spaces created by Samuel van Hoogstraten’s peepshow boxes.

    The next phase of Alma-Tadema’s career followed his first marriage and honeymoon in Italy. This latter-day Grand Tour included encountering the excavations at Pompeii, which immediately inspired a fresh wave of painting featuring ancient Roman culture and settings. The consistently high quality of these works, all produced in the late 1860s, is astonishing.

    In A Greek Woman, the titular figure smells a cut flower whilst standing against a frescoed wall that parallels the picture plane. The latter, featuring a parade progressing to the left, appears soft, almost blurred, whilst the former is sharp and present, faces rightward and looks out of the picture toward us. His Roman Reading contains a wealth of minute and utterly real details, from decorative finishes along the edges of furniture to pictures inside pictures, and from statues half-hidden to scrolls stacked in a cubbyhole. Inscriptions, graffiti and signs included in these images can be read and translated, and the many flowers can be identified with ease.

    Alam-Tadema’s ability to convincingly render a wide range of materials – still and flowing water, fur, food of all kinds, pewter and lead, gilt, a palette of marbles – is also apparent and often transcends the boundary of what is possible with the medium. Strikingly, he frequently positioned items so that their shape or ornamental finish is foreshortened or the original object is partly obscured by another. Of course this complicates the act of painting them, even if it does improve the realism of the final result, and discovering these touches is very rewarding. The richness of colour used by the painter has a basis in fact, too, following for example the discovery of a deep red pigment at Pompeii.

    Sadly this professional happiness was not matched by personal contentment, as Alma-Tadema’s wife died not long after their second daughter was born. Prompting a move from Belgium, to where the couple had returned after their trip, to London, this tragedy was nevertheless to prove the springboard for another stage of the Dutchman’s life. Meeting and marrying English artist Laura Epps, who embraced her step-daughters with touching dedication, the Alma-Tademas remodelled a Regent’s Park house into their own, very personal home, layered with art by themselves and their friends and launching all three Alma-Tadema women on their own creative careers.

    Introducing works by Laura, her sister and Alma-Tadema’s daughter Anna into the exhibition is a welcome touch, not least because both modelled for the man of the house and so it is nice to see them from another angle. More relevant aspects of Laurence’s work also appear, like the inclusion of Japanese objects – a growing cultural touchstone for Western artists after the forced opening of that country a few decades earlier– and the wit of showing in one painting a woman (actually Laura) reading a copy of the publication that commissioned the work.

    By this point Alma-Tadema’s reputation and popularity had reached great heights. His Roman works were often repeated with only slight variations, but the results of his ongoing experimentation with different sizes and formats of painting, use of new subjects to test his technical proficiency (including a superb night exterior that is completely convincing) and continued ability to innovate compositionally and in content terms can only be admired, often open-mouthed.

    One more characteristic of Alma-Tadema’s work that ensures his pictures repay close scrutiny is that mining of real-world sources. These are occasionally deployed with an ingenuous twist, so that marble statues found by archaeologists become the bronze Greek original that the Romans copied; what were table top sculptures appear at a wholly greater scale; important examples of ancient art that would be immediately recognisable if reproduced ‘straight’ are partly concealed or only hinted at, an amusing conceit that that cultured Victorian audiences would have appreciated. The examples displayed at Leighton House are from the more sober end of this spectrum, compressing half a dozen of Rome’s great monuments into the background as if in a capriccio and imagining the Nebamoen Tomb Chapel frescoes, now in the British Museum and elsewhere, in an appropriate context.

    Part of the Nebamoen Tomb Chapel frescoes, in Alma-Tadema's picture and in reality

    Fittingly positioned within Frederic Leighton’s own studio is a reconstruction of the real discovery for me of this exhibition – the Hall of Panels, a space from the Alma-Tademas’ second home in St John’s Wood that was lined with dozens of tall, narrow panels painted by some of the best artists of the day and gifted to the family. Remarkably, almost 20 of these have been secured for the exhibition, including works by John O’Connor, Val Prinsep, Frank Dicksee, John Singer Sargent and Leighton himself. Furniture designed by Alma-Tadema, further works by Laura and Anna and displays of his sketches for theatrical productions round out this section, which showcases what is a very modern-seeming family.

    The climax of the exhibition comprises a selection of the blockbuster paintings Alma-Tadema produced in the last years of his life. Many demonstrate his undiminished mastery of perspective, plane and angle of view, combined in startlingly effective pictures such as Coign of Vantage or A Kiss, in which five separate axes of movement or vision are merged with apparently effortless ease in a way that also anticipates the graphic manipulations of another Dutchman, M.C. Escher, a young teenager at the time of Alma-Tadema’s death and who was born in the same town where the older man was raised.

    The undisputed masterpiece that crowns the show, however, is The Roses of Heliogabalus, seen for the second time in recent years at Leighton House after its welcome visit as part of the Perez Simon Collection in 2014. Fortunately the arrangements this time allow the public to get much closer, and unsurprisingly the wealth of detail that is revealed leaves one breathless. The tightness of torques around biceps; the table of food and curved marble bench glimpsed beneath the deluge; the correctness of marbles’ veining; the green stalks of rose heads caught in the freeze-frame flood of flora; the sumptuousness of the repast on the emperor’s own table. It is, frankly, almost impossible to believe that such a thing could have been created.

    By 1912, Alma-Tadema’s output must have seemed at odds with the world – indeed, it isn’t hard to conclude that his pursuit of increasingly sunlit, dazzling and multi-sensual worlds in paint was a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the gathering clouds that were soon to break as well as his second wife’s death. If so, it was a world that many were happy to share, and perhaps today, too, such works are finding admirers for reasons beyond their obvious aesthetic merit. Regardless, it is without question worthwhile making yourself at home in antiquity for a few hours over the next few months. You will not be disappointed.

    Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity, organised by the Museum of Friesland, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (Alma-Tadema’s home town), continues at Leighton House Museum, Holland Park Road, London W14 until 29 October.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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