Biography of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. Page 11
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. 1994
Chapter 11: The Man Himself
uch has been written about the personality of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Unlike many who shed their old friends for new and more influential ones as their star rose, Alma-Tadema treated all alike. He made many friends and kept them steadfastly throughout his long life. The author Julian Hawthorne describes him:
A rather short, broad, blond personage stood before us: a broad forehead, pale-grey eyes with eyeglasses, a big humorous mouth hardly hidden by a thin, short yellow beard. His front face was blunt, jolly and unremarkable; but his profile was fine as an antique cameo...he was dressed in a thick velvet corduroy sack coat and trousers of the same soft brown colour, the vitality and energy of his aspect and movements and the volume of his voice were stunning...his great, delighted laugh constantly recurred, resounding through the beautiful rooms from the midst of the group that always gathered about him; he made ordinary people appear anaemic and ineffectual. Withall, he was civilized and fine to the bone and his utmost boisterousness never struck a wrong note. He won you at first accost as a superb human creature, and by degrees you began to see his pictures in him.191
The occasion for this encounter was one of Tadema's famous Tuesdays, which he always pronounced, 'Twosdays'. These were a central part of St John's Wood social life. His parties were command performances, and it was his friends who were commanded to perform. Edwin Austin Abbey once overheard Alma-Tadema organize one of his gatherings:
A big man, as regards voice and beard (not stature), was talking in the library to an amused circle, as we entered. He was telling of a new Roman room he'd built and was going to give a dinner in. 'And you zhall be dere, Henschel...and my dear friend Sir Henry Thompson doo,...and ve vill vear dogas, and haf de real Roman schtyle.'192
Frederick Yeames described him as:
A short sturdily built man with twinkling eyes, cheery smile, hair parted in the middle of a broad forehead and small tawny beard, would hurry forward with an hospitable handshake, and bustling you into his studio to look at pictures of Greek and Roman ladies reclining on the most marvelously painted marble. Would talk in rapid unfluent English telling stories quite outside his art, and beaming when he brought a smile to lips of his guests.193
F G Stephens lauded the man:
Out of his genial blue eyes, his energetic face and stalwart figure, as well as from the very grip of his hand, emanate kindness and firmness.194
Not everyone appreciated his assertive jocular personality. Lodewijk van Deyssel was one guest who did not find Alma-Tadema particularly charming. Reflecting on a visit to the artist's studio in 1898, van Deyssel wrote:
I am full of praise concerning the studio, but found the master however a disappointment. I had imagined him to be more refined, but he's fairly vulgar.195
The man was a combination of successful artist, music and theatre lover, buffoon, scholar and graciously wealthy host. For all the quiet charm and erudition of his paintings, he himself preserved a youthful sense of mischief. According to Helen Henschel, 'It was hard to recognize in this immense child the painter of those pictures.'196 Philip Carr wrote that, 'He was childlike in his practical jokes and...in his sudden bursts of bad temper, which could as suddenly subside into a most engaging smile.'197
His only notable vices were, apparently, his penchant for staying up late, indulgence in smoking cigars and drinking port with his friends. Later critics have tried to delve deeper into his private mind. One recent critic refers to some of his portrayals of women in 'states of repressed emotions' as a reflection on the artist's own character.
The presence in Alma-Tadema's portfolio of photographs of snapshots of nude boys amid Roman ruins has been seen by some as evidence of his sexual proclivities, but such photographs were collected by many late nineteenth and early twentieth-century artists as reference material. They were found amongst Alma-Tadema's antiquarian reference material, and not in his bureau's secret drawers.
Other accusations against him, such as that his sense of the ethereal was a side-effect of drug-taking, remain remote and unproven. Sir Lawrence was very fond of women, but appears to have been faithful to Laura throughout. There was never a hint of infidelity, although his family's long absences for health reasons would have given him ample opportunity.
Although his mother and family were devote Mennonites and he was on the rolls of the Dutch Reformed church of the Austin Friars in London, Alma'Tadema was not very religious. He could not abide the Calvinistic concept of the depravity of man. He rejected the sectarian Protestantism of his day and sought God more abstractly. Lacking a doctrinally defined spiritual perspective, he made up for it with his family, friends, music and art.
Alma-Tadema was no fool. He had the ability to remove himself from the pressures of his profession and lose himself amongst his friends. His working methods were so demanding and tedious that his frequent periods of 'letting go' ensured his continued mental and physical stability.
According to Millie Lowenstam, daughter of the engraver Leopold Lowenstam, Alma-Tadema was 'horrible' to work with: 'too much of a perfectionist and always demanded extra work of father. He was hot-tempered and could become excessively angry if details didn't run smoothly.'198 She went so far as to insinuate that Alma-Tadema helped drive her father to an early grave. He continually shepherded each etching through to completion, and demanded those in his employ to meet the same stringent standards as he set for himself.
His conscientiousness was evident in the frequent use of a large magnifying glass whilst painting the meticulously rendered flowers. According to Ethel McKenna, 'Every moment of daylight spent away from his easel is regretted.'199 He always rose at six in the morning to begin painting at first light even though he frequently stayed up late with his friends. Although robust, he consumed his own energies at an astonishing rate. A cycle of exhaustion often led to sickness followed by convalescence of the most pampered sort. The entire family was obsessed with health, and in the latter years one or the other were always absent taking cures at prestigious European spas.
He continuously reworked sections of his paintings to satisfy his own high standards. As one visitor to his studio remarked, 'I have seen Mr Alma-Tadema painting out a thousand pounds!'200 He was, nonetheless, an excellent businessman, and one of the wealthiest artists of the nineteenth century. He was as firm in money matters as he was with the quality of his work. Alma-Tadema once told Philip Carr:
I work 'ard, I work slow to get 'im right. If 'e is not right, I paint 'im out, once, twice. But when 'im is finished, I am not an artist no more, I am a tradesman!201
Like most artists with a following, he was liable and susceptible to be a slave to his constituency. He usually made more than one version of a major painting, ostensibly for engraving purposes. But to become trapped in a stereotype is as irksome for an artist as it is for an actor to become type-cast. He confided to C Lewis Hind:
Bah! My friends, the public, won't let me progress. I paint a bit of marble and they always want marble; a blue sky and they always want blue skies; Agrippa and they always want Agrippa, an oleander and they want nothing but oleanders. Bah! A man isn't a MACHINE!202
He remained in all respects a diligent, if somewhat obsessive and pedantic worker. In his personal life he was an extrovert and a remarkably warm personality. He had most of the characteristics of a child, coupled with the admirable traits of a consummate professional.