Biography of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. Page 2
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. 1994
Chapter 2: Antwerp (1852-65)
Baron Gustave C. Wappers
Detail from Episode During the Belgian Revolution of 1830, 1834. Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels
t the time of Alma-Tadema's arrival14, the Academy at Antwerp was under the directorship of Baron Gustave C. Wappers, teacher of Ford Madox Brown. The Neo-Classical style of Jacques Louis David had lingered there into the mid-century, and it was Baron Wappers, popularly known as 'David's antidote', who sought to end this foreign influence by attempting to revive the best traditions of the older Dutch and Belgian masters.
By entering the academy of Baron Wappers, Alma-Tadema was inadvertently directed to the study of early Dutch and Flemish art rather than Neo-Classical formulations. This influence was not as much in the choice of subject as in style and approach. Rejecting the endless conventions and subject hierarchy of the Classical School, Alma-Tadema eventually blended the Lowland tradition of petit genre, the modernist invention -- the camera and naturalism with the antique subject matter of everyday Roman patricians to form a style that might be termed 'Bourgeois Classicism'. The Antwerp Academy's tradition, which stretched back to the days of Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and van Dyck, lent itself more to Romantic sentiment than to Classical intellectualism.
Six months after Alma-Tadema's arrival Baron Wappers resigned the Directorship of the Academy, which he had held since 1840, and moved to Paris.15 Joseph Laurent Dyckmanns was awarded the position in 1853, to be succeeded in 1855 by Nicaise de Keyser. Alma-Tadema's other professors included Joseph Henri Fran�ois van Lerius, a 'Davidian' who eventually went insane, and Professor Jan Antoon Verschaeren, a portrait and historical painter with some Classical inclinations.
Dyckmanns had a greater influence on Alma-Tadema than the romantic de Keyser, because of Alma-Tadema's interest in illustrative historical subjects painted with a smooth academic technique. Dyckmanns's clear and exact paintings were profusely detailed, in harmonious colour, and with a hard porcelain finished surface. His oils, Admission of love and Lady party (early 1850s), influenced Alma-Tadema's earliest pictures through their mutual interest in costume genre and historicity. Alma-Tadema's bias toward perfection of technique owed something to Dyckmanns, the 'Belgian Gerard Dou'.16
Alma-Tadema worked in Dyckmanns's studio from the early months of 1855 to 1856. His painting A poacher returning home after the hunt (No 21, 1855), completed in April 1855, was his first narrative picture produced in oil. Most of his other works at that time consisted of studies of staircases, minor portraits and figure sketches. Under Dyckmanns's influence Alma-Tadema's work remained at the Netherlandish low-life genre level, typical of his origins.
Alma-Tadema's first major independent production was completed in May of 1856. The commission arose when Klaas Tigler Wybrandi, the husband of Tadema's aunt Sjoukje Brouwer, commissioned The alm (No 28, 1856). It was the artist's first serious commission and was probably painted in Sjoukje's memory after her death in late 1855. It is likely that Alma-Tadema's mother influenced Wybrandi to commission this memorial to her sister and because of the close family ties and the need of funds Tadema took the order quite seriously.
Delighted with the opportunity, he went to see de Keyser, who informed him that under the rules of the Academy an absence of more than three weeks involved automatic expulsion. Such drastic consequences failed to deter the energetic Alma-Tadema who left to take up the commission.17 Apart from attending a few special classes, he was never to return as a regular pupil.
No biographers mention another, highly significant painting of about the same period The declaration of love (No. 28a, 1856).18 This oil was completed toward June of 1856 in time for the Levende Meesters exhibition in Maastricht. Whereas The alm was a low-life genre scene, the smaller The declaration of love was a sixteenth century costume high-life subject prefiguring his later 'boy proposes to girl'Classical anecdotal themes.
During Alma-Tadema's four years as a registered student at the Academy he had won several respectable awards (see Nos 14 and 25), but, more importantly, the Academy had propelled him out of the provincial backwater of Friesland into the hub of a major art center. He felt at ease in his new surroundings, and assimilated patterns of behaviour quite different from those of his Mennonite upbringing.
Towards the end of 1855 Alma-Tadema left his address at Kleine Goddaert and moved into the house and studio of Professor Louis (Lodewijk) Jan de Taeye, whose courses in history and historical costume he had greatly enjoyed during his last six months at the Academy. He stayed here for the next three years before returning to Leeuwarden in November 1858.19
Although de Taeye was not an outstanding painter, Alma-Tadema respected him and became his studio assistant. He worked on many of de Taeye's pictures, including the professor's chef d'oeuvre, La Bataille de Poitiers (1856). During this tutelage Alma-Tadema began most of the themes that would pervade his art throughout his early career. It was de Taeye who directed the young artist's attention to the study of the early history of France and Belgium. He introduced Alma-Tadema to Augustin Thierry's book, Récits des temps mérovingiens (1840) and to Gregory de Tour's opus History of the Franks (AD 590), both of which became source-books for the young artist.20
It was de Taeye who recommended Alma-Tadema for membership into the most prestigious culture club of Antwerp, the Cercle Artistique.21 Crommelin writes of the influence of the Cercle Artistique, and Belcher reiterates the conditions in which Alma-Tadema found himself between 1856 and 1858:
In his student days at Antwerp he was much with the Germans, and it was the time of the Grimms, the revival of the study of the Nibelungs, the digging of the Frankish graves, the forming of the Mayence [Mainz] Museum &c. He was full of it all.22
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema Faust and Marguerite, 1857
German Romanticism is immediately apparent in his water-colour Faust and Marguerite (Op. VII, 1857) taken from Goethe's Faust. This was a popular subject of the period as fellow Dutchman, Ary Scheffer's (1795-1858) masterpiece attests. The Egyptian influence also exerted by de Taeye was not manifest until the winter of 1858-9 in The dying Cleopatra (No 39, 1858-9, destroyed) and Unfavourable oracle (No 40, 1858). His first Greco-Roman painting Marius on the ruins of Carthage (Op. IX, 1858, water-colour) and his first Merovingian picture Clotilde at the tomb of her grandchildren (No 35, 1858) emerged at about the same time.
De Taeye's encouragement had prompted Alma-Tadema to depict this dark period of history, even though it was obscure and rarely portrayed. Carel Vosmaer, the art critic, once asked Alma-Tadema why he, a happy fellow, painted the monstrous Merovingians: 'They are' replied Tadema, 'a sorry lot to be sure, still they are picturesque and interesting.'23 Alma-Tadema continued to paint Merovingian pictures throughout the next decade, the only painter of note to concentrate on this period.
He had learned much from his mentor's large library and from the many discussions with de Taeye himself. This experience encouraged Alma-Tadema's portrayal of history with archaeological accuracy. In this respect F. G. Stephens relates that de Taeye, 'The learned antiquary... assisted the youth in those studies of antiquity which from childhood he had never ceased to affect.'24
The inundation of the Biesbosch in 1421 (No 29, 1856, see illustration p.129) was probably Alma-Tadema's first painting in de Taeye's studio. The formulation of the title with the year included, clearly shows the influence of de Taeye, who had already painted a large inundation picture in 1850, entitled Flooding of Grimberghen in the year 1823. The master's contribution for Alma-Tadema lay not so much in technical execution which he learned more from Dyckmanns, nor in formal elements where Baron Leys's teaching was crucial, but rather in the choice of subject matter and concern for accurate historical context. Although little work remains from this formative period, enough survives to show Alma-Tadema's development.
His third major oil, completed after leaving the Antwerp Academy was entitled The destruction of Terdoest Abbey in 1571 (No 32, 1857). Its broadly handled pigmentation and hastily brushed-in details seem a departure from the earlier careful attention to surface and minutiae. The work was not well received and did not sell at the artist's Salon debut in Brussels. Neither the critics nor the public appreciated its content and execution so Tadema gave it to his mother's kitchen maid, who used it as a tablecloth!25
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema Death of the Pharaoh's Firstborn Son, 1872
Incidents from Netherlandish history began to infiltrate Alma-Tadema's work during this period, especially disaster pictures portraying death, plundering and destruction. These included Ruins of the monastery of St Bavon, Ghent (No 38, c1858), Death of the first-born (No 40, 1859), Massacre of the monks of Tamond (1855, drawing) and Plundering of Egmond Abbey by the Spanish: 1567 (No 42, 1859). De Taeye also encouraged Alma-Tadema to paint a series on the Migration of the Nations of which The death of Attila (XI, 1859) and a very large oil, No 41 (c1859), probably of the same subject, were the only pictures to be completed. This type of work was not really compatible with Tadema's happy temperament and was, with few exceptions, limited to his apprentice years.
Alma-Tadema now began to experiment with ancient Egyptian subjects. Edmund Gosse explained that:
In 1858, Alma-Tadema painted the first of his studies in social aspects of antique civilizations; he had been studying with de Taeye the results of recent archaeology and he resolved to attempt to reconstruct one of the scenes of Egyptian society.26
Death of the first born (The sad father) (No 40, 1859) is Alma-Tadema's earliest extant Egyptian oil, dating from about the same time as the destroyed The dying Cleopatra (No 39, 1859). The picture seems to derive many of its sources from objects and settings in the important handbook The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837) by Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson. It was, according to Dawson and Uphill, "The greatest review of ancient Egyptian civilization ever undertaken."27
Certainly he would have had access, through de Taeye's library, to Dominique V. Denon's Description de L'Egypte, an essential visual guide to ancient monuments published in 1809. Other Egyptian related books by De Coissy, Perrot and Chipez must have had an influence on Alma-Tadema, as shown by notes in a small sketch-book of this period.
Alma-Tadema left de Taeye's studio in November 1858, yet de Taeye's influence was to prove more enduring than that of his next mentor, Baron Hendrik Leys. However, before joining the Leys studio Alma-Tadema returned home to Leeuwarden, probably at the instigation of his mother. Many of their relatives had already left Leeuwarden, and Tadema felt that his mother and sister should join him in Antwerp. Although his financial situation was precarious, he had earned some money, could offer them housing (he had taken a house previously occupied by J F P Portielje), and had prospects of career advancement through his new assistantship. The family joined him in early 1859.28
Alma-Tadema had been introduced to Baron Hendrik Leys by de Taeye in the autumn of 1858. Leys needed an expert in architectural perspective to assist him with a large commission of ten murals for the town hall of Antwerp, depicting scenes from the city's history. They took much of Alma-Tadema's time between May 1859 and September 1863. Not all of the murals were completed, and it is said that he never accepted any money from Leys for his services.29
Alma-Tadema's training was now in its final stage. Under the continental system of the period, an art student was required to attend an academy for a number of years before joining the studio of a reputable painting master. If a student's work was not of sufficient merit he might fail to secure an apprenticeship and thus his career would suffer. It is therefore much to Alma-Tadema's credit that he was chosen by an artist of the stature of Leys, whose studio was among the most highly regarded in Belgium. Alma-Tadema maintained that he learned infinitely more during his studies with de Taeye and Leys than in all his years at the Academy.30
Leys believed that an artist should use historical subjects for contemporary pictures. He disliked the concept of Classical unity in the formal sense. In contrast with those of his more conventional contemporaries, Leys's later compositions tended to contain individually conceived figures. But the master's skill in grouping these figures, ensured that what might have been a perceptual weakness in composition, usually turned into a formidable gestalt. Lack of emotion and static forms are relieved by Gothic angularity, minute detail and historical accuracy.
Leys had deviated from the Franco-Belgian Romantic school. His own art assumed roughly the same position as that of the 'juste milieu' painters in France, or Biedermeier group in Germany and Scandinavia who were academic in technique but Bourgeois-Romantic in subject-matter. He was also more fervent than those artists in his religious conviction. Through such paintings as Rubens feasted by the gunsmiths of Antwerp and Erasmus in his study Leys exerted a potent influence over Alma-Tadema and numerous other artists of that period. A list of his students is impressive: Tissot, Felix de Vigne, Ferdinand and Henri de Braekeleer, Jozef Lies, Pierre van der Ouderra and Alma-Tadema's good friend Victor Lagye.
One of the peculiarities of his technique was the use of rich black pigment for outlines enclosing warm tonal opaque drawing in a cloisonné style. His succulent dark paint surface was a pervasive influence in Antwerp during the 1850s and '60s. Working with Leys was, according to Alma-Tadema, 'A very beautiful and interesting task, which was, moreover, of infinite service to me in its direct bearing upon my own art tendencies.'31 Alma-Tadema acquired much of his knowledge and craftsmanship through his association with Leys.
The water(colours The death of Attila (Op. XI, 1859) and The death of Hippolyte (Op. XII, 1860) were completed under Leys's tutelage. The latter, and his earlier water-colour Marius on the ruins of Carthage (Op. IX, 1858), were exhibited at the prestigious Arti et Amicitiae exhibition in Amsterdam in 1860. They received considerable praise and were responsible for his admission to the membership of that society which was, at the time, Amsterdam's equivalent to Antwerp's Cercle Artistique.
His large oil the Triumphal return of Willem van Saeftingen to the Abbey Terdoest in 1513 (No 46, 1860), which took two years to complete, was exhibited at the Exposition General des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The right side of the painting was eventually destroyed, and envisaging possibilities for the remaining left side, Alma-Tadema restored it and later sold the repainted remnant to the dealer, Ernest Gambart.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Education of the children of Clovis, 1861
The Education of the children of Clovis (No 50, 1861) was the first major work painted entirely under the guidance of Baron Leys. This was an oil version of an earlier drawing, executed as a gift for de Taeye in 1858. Leys had asked Alma-Tadema to alter the insipid and overly-dramatic figures of the drawing towards a more detached formality. Alma-Tadema related that although Leys thought the completed painting better than he had expected, he was critical of the treatment of marble which he felt resembled cheese. Alma-Tadema took this criticism very seriously, and it led him to become the world's foremost painter of marble and variegated granite. This interest had already been aroused as early as 1858:
The artistic possibilities of marble first attracted me when, as a young man of two and twenty, I was on a visit to Ghent. A friend took me to his club... it was the Cercle de la Concorde, I believe, where the smoking-room was lined with white marble.32
The Clovis painting was a sensation amongst critics and artists when it was exhibited that year at the Artistic Congress in Antwerp. It is said to have laid the foundation of his fame. The painting was purchased from the exhibition by the Antwerp Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts for 1,600 francs, and eventually given to King Leopold of Belgium. Alma-Tadema was often offered funds to travel and study art in other countries, but he always refused. However after his success in 1861 he ventured out of the Low Countries for the first time, visiting the National German Exhibition at Cologne, where he was greatly impressed by the paintings of the late German-Gothic period, and museums both there and in Mainz where he sketched marble statues from the late-Roman and early-Christian periods.33
On his return, Alma-Tadema continued to paint Merovingian themes. Venantius Fortunatus reading his poems to Radegonda VI: AD 555 (No 51, 1862) was one such painting. The subject-matter may well have derived from the period when he was working on de Taeye's picture, La Bataille de Poitiers (1856), for it was in Poitiers that Radegonda's convent was situated. This painting won Alma-Tadema the gold medal at the 1862 Living Masters Exhibition and membership of the Amsterdam Royal Academy; a success which rectified his rejection by the Academy's school a decade earlier.
Soon afterwards, he completed Gunthram Bose and his daughters AD 572 (No 54, 1862, see illustration p.130), also entitled, The ambuscade. This painting illustrating an episode from Gregory de Tours's History of the Franks, was entered into the Akademie voor Bildenkunst in Rotterdam in 1862, but did not fare well. Later, in 1864, with the help of the animal painter Alfred Verwee, Alma-Tadema repainted the oxen and entered the picture into an exhibition in Brussels.
On one occasion, when Leys was painting his own Three reformers with Luther he asked Alma-Tadema to insert a Gothic table into the composition. When it was completed, Leys complained, 'That is not my idea of a table. I want one that everybody knocks his knees to pieces on,'34 whereupon Alma-Tadema substituted it for a colossally heavy oak piece. This criticism helped him towards greater accuracy of detail, and the following year he painted a refectory table in his own Flemish Interior in the fourteenth century (No 55, 1863).
At the age of twenty-six, Alma-Tadema made his first journey to London to visit the International Exhibition. He carried with him a letter of introduction to the future Royal Academician, Philip Hermogenes Calderon, through whom he became acquainted with the artistic circles of London. Whilst visiting the exhibition, Alma-Tadema was confronted for the first time with work of Japanese artists, most of which came from the collection of Sir Rutherford Alcock. The contents of this collection were not recorded, but it is possible that his subsequent interest in Japonisme dates back to this visit.
Alma-Tadema took this opportunity to visit the British Museum, where he was greatly impressed by the Elgin marbles and the Egyptian antiquities. The latter he used in Pastimes in Ancient Egypt 3,000 years ago (No 56, 1863). This first journey to London helped prepare him for an even more significant visit the following year and enabled him to observe, firsthand, originals of the antiquities he was already including in his paintings.
The year 1863 was to alter the course of Alma-Tadema's personal and professional life; on January 3rd his invalid mother died and on September 24th he was married, in Antwerp City Hall, to Pauline Gressin, daughter of Eug�ne Gressin a French journalist of royal descent living near Brussels. Nothing is known of their meeting, and little of Pauline herself, as Alma-Tadema never spoke about her after her death in 1869.35 Her image appears in a number of oils, though he painted her portrait only three times, the most notable appearing in My studio (No 85, 1867).
Their honeymoon was spent in Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii. Alma-Tadema originally decided to go to Italy to study the remains of the Byzantine and early Middle Ages. Although the ancient ruins of Rome captivated him, they seemed too grandiose and abstract for his didactic mind and he felt unable to enter into the spirit of Ancient Roman times in the modern city. The Byzantine period was the only period holding any fascination for him at this time.36 In fact, his Interior of the Church of San Clemente Rome (No 57, 1863, see illustration p.131) was the most significant picture begun during his honeymoon. After a month in Rome, the Tademas continued their journey south.
According to Edmund Gosse it was the trip to Pompeii that awakened Alma-Tadema's interest in the Ancient Romans.37 The kingdom of the two Sicilies had recently been annexed by Victor Emmanuel under his design to form a unified kingdom of Italy. In 1861 he was proclaimed king, and as part of the new regime's programme digging had begun that year in Pompeii. The writings of the archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli, created considerable excitement at the time, and news of important discoveries may have influenced the couple's decision to include Pompeii in their itinerary.
Alma-Tadema took every opportunity to study the archaeological finds, and to familiarize himself with every available form and type of marble. This first visit to Italy was of enormous importance for it marked the beginning of the Classical inspiration for which Alma-Tadema eventually became famous.
By the end of the year with their funds depleted, the Alma-Tademas were obliged to return home. They travelled back to Antwerp via the French capital where Alma-Tadema had entered a painting in the Paris Salon. This was his first visit to France and the first time his work had been exhibited in Paris. The painting had been shown the previous year in Brussels under the title Pastimes in Ancient Egypt (No 56, 1863). It was then repainted and submitted to the Paris Salon as Pastimes in Ancient Egypt (18th Dynasty), where it caused a sensation and won a gold medal.38 Napoleon III offered 3,000 francs for it, but the artist declined the offer, valuing it at 4,000.
The Salon medal brought Alma-Tadema into contact with many Parisian artists through the well-known Belgian painter, Alfred Stevens. One of these, Jean Léon G�rome, is said to have revealed to Alma-Tadema the formula of the painting medium which he was to use for the rest of his career.39
On their return to Antwerp, Lawrence, Pauline and his sister, Artje, moved to Rue St Thomas 14. Soon afterwards, he finished Queen Fredegonda at the death-bed of Bishop Praetextatus (No 58, 1864). The painting was begun before his marriage and finished in time for the Salon d'Anvers in August 1864. It marked the beginning of the decline of Alma-Tadema's interest in Merovingian history; he only produced two more such pictures.
During the summer of 1864 a bizarre meeting occurred between Alma-Tadema and Ernest Gambart, the most influential art dealer and impresario of the nineteenth century. According to Jeremy Maas it was one of the crucial events in the development of late nineteenth century English painting.40 With offices in several European capitals, and headquarters in London, Gambart's power and influence were considerable. Wherever he went, the whisper 'Gambart is here' would be heard in artistic circles, and every opportunity and subterfuge used by painters to induce him to visit their studios.
There are several versions of their first recorded meeting which are rather confusing. It is said, in one account, that Victor Lagye contrived to direct Gambart's carriage, bound for Dyckmanns's studio, to Tadema's instead. The young artist was ready and waiting, and Gambart, though realizing he had been misled, took the matter in good temper.41
Alma-Tadema had been working on Egyptian chess players (No 60, 1865) and although not completed until February 1865, it was probably well under way. Such was the attention aroused by this work that Leys and Lagye may well have mentioned it to Gambart or even instigated the 'chance meeting'. In any event the dealer asked about the picture by title. Ellen Gosse wrote in 1894 that the painting:
...was the means of Mr. Alma-Tadema's acquaintance with M. Gambart, the picture-dealer, who recognizing at once the unusual gifts of the young painter, at the advice of Baron Leys and Rosa Bonheur, gave him an order for twenty-four pictures.42
Egyptian chess players was the first picture actually finished for Gambart after the commission was made and the first work shipped to him. Alma-Tadema had a major objection to the bargain Gambart wished to strike. Since his new-found inspiration from the ancient Pompeians, the gruesome deeds of Merovingian rulers had lost their appeal. Yet Gambart had requested pictures similar to some of those he had just seen and purchased, and was reluctant to allow his new artist to diversify into Classical themes. According to Edmund Gosse, a deal was finally concluded with the stipulation that at least half of the pictures could be 'Antique'. Eventually all constraints were removed.43
Gambart arranged for three of Alma-Tadema's paintings to be shown in April 1865 at his 12th Annual French and Flemish Exhibition at the French Gallery, Pall Mall, the first time that the artist's work had been exhibited in London. All three paintings were listed at the beginning of the catalogue. The first of these was erroneously entitled An evening party at Nineveh, confusing those who had seen it the previous year at the Paris Salon as Pastimes in Ancient Egypt (18th Dynasty) (No 56, 1863); the other two were Egyptian chess players (No 60, 1865) and Birthday presents in the 16th century (No 61, 1865).
Perhaps because of its stylistic affinities with three paintings by Leys and two by Lagye in the same exhibition, Alma-Tadema's work was largely overlooked. However, one of the original Pre-Raphaelites, F G Stephens, possibly anxious to please Gambart, wrote that the paintings displayed 'good workmanship' and 'a great deal of spirit and originality'.44
Alma-Tadema finished three more paintings during his last two months in Antwerp before the family's move to Brussels: Gallo-Roman women (No 62, 1865), Entering church in the fourteenth century(No 63, 1865) and An Egyptian at his doorway (No 64, 1865). The former represented Tadema's first wholly Ancient-Roman oil and was painted exactly a year after his visit to Italy.