Friday, 08 September 2017

Alma-tadema: At home in antiquity

Fêted in the 19th century, forgotten in the 20th, an artist fascinated with the ancient world is celebrated again

Written by Roderick Conway Morris


Lawrence Alma-Tadema started life in the village of Dronrijp in Friesland, a somewhat remote corner of Holland, in 1836, and died in 1912. At his death this naturalised British citizen was one of the most celebrated artists of his age; wealthy, knighted and laden with other honours.

However, by then, modernist movements such as fauvism, cubism and futurism were shaking the foundations of the art world and his reputation went into decline.

So far did he fall that in 1960 his once-famous Finding of Moses (1904) could not even find a buyer. However, while the modernist establishment has remained dismissive of the artist, recent exhibitions have stimulated public appreciation of his works – reflected in the nearly £28 million that the painting commanded when auctioned again in 2010.

This revival is now crowned by a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime gathering of 130 works, which includes over a dozen pieces by Alma-Tadema’s wife Laura and daughter Anna, in an impressive exhibition that has travelled on from the Belvedere in Vienna and the Museum of Friesland in Leeuwarden. The two magnificent studio-houses the artist and his family created in London no longer exist in their original form, but happily his friend and contemporary Lord Leighton’s studio-home in Kensington has been preserved and restored and provides the ideal venue for this show.

Alma-Tadema began his career in the Low Countries painting expertly executed, rather gloomy narrative scenes from the early Middle Ages. But a honeymoon trip to Naples in 1863 was a revelation. Not only was he captivated by the ruins of Pompeii, but was also inspired by a school of local artists who were bringing ancient Rome to life on canvas. Alma-Tadema thereafter dedicated himself to gorgeous evocations of the ancient world – Roman, Greek and Egyptian – adorned with shimmering marbles, glittering mosaics, burnished bronzes and richly coloured textiles, drenched in Mediterranean light and animated by beautiful young people.

Ironically, just when he was becoming unfashionable as an artist, Alma-Tadema’s images were already exerting a uniquely powerful and enduring influence on depictions of the ancient world in film – that most popular of all modern forms of art and entertainment – a phenomenon most recently and conspicuously evident in blockbuster movies such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

Until October 29 at Leighton House Museum, London W14: 020-7602 3316, rbkc.gov.uk/almatadema  


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