Biography of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. Page 3
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. 1994
Chapter 3: Brussels (1865-70)
he winning of such a large commission made Alma-Tadema feel financially secure for the first time, and even able to contemplate a change of environment. Brussels seemed an obvious choice. Pauline, who was expecting a child, (Laurense, born in August) wanted to be near her parents in Brussels. It was there that two of his former fellow students, Alfred Verwee and Jan Verhaus, had already settled the previous year.45 Gambart was eager for his new artist to be closer to his continental office in Brussels where the dealer gathered paintings for sale or exhibition in Britain and America.
Although Alma-Tadema considered both Antwerp and Paris, he decided that the former was too small and the latter too large and competitive. Moreover by the 1860s Brussels had overtaken Antwerp in terms of cultural importance. At about this time Queen Fredegonda at the death-bed of Bishop Praetextatus (No 58, 1864) was exhibited and acquired for the tombola of the Triennial Salon of Brussels, where it received such praise that the Tademas finally decided that Brussels was where they would live.
The couple had visited Verwee several times and much admired his studio accommodation, so when he later informed them of a vacancy at the same address, the opportunity was immediately seized and by the end of May 1865 Alma-Tadema had established his home at 29 Rue de la Limite and his studio at 51 Rue des Palais.
Alma-Tadema began at once to decorate the studio, thus delaying completion of any further paintings until August 1865. His Antwerp studio had been decorated with panels in black, and oak inherited from his mother. In Brussels he surrounded himself with resonant Pompeian-red and Roman wall-motifs, which were later repainted in blue and green. He attached great importance to the effect of light and colour upon his work:
When I found that the black Pompeian decorations of my early Antwerp studio made me paint my pictures too heavy, I had my next studio painted red. There they got too hot. So moving to Brussels, I painted my studio light green [in 1868]: and when I arrived in London, my first studio was blue and green. The influence was such that you can classify my pictures according to the influence produced upon them by the surroundings.46
At the beginning of August, Alma-Tadema finished his most important classical-antique picture to date, Catullus at Lesbia's (No 66, 1865). It was the first painting completed in Brussels and clearly affirmed the direction his art was to take. Stephens wrote with some truthfulness, 'For the first time classical genre subjects were represented with verisimilitude, learning and technical mastery.'47 Painted in the standard size for Alma-Tadema's work during the period, 16 x 22" (40.6 x 55.8 cm), it depicts an episode from 'On the Sparrow', a poem by the Roman satirist, Juvenal. The painting was the precursor of many in which the artist built an entire picture around inconsequential and anecdotal events.
Alma-Tadema was not the sole exponent of this style of Classical art; although such pictures were rare in Belgium and Holland, they were prevalent in France and Italy. Neo-grec painting certainly proved something of a model for Alma-Tadema in the mid-1860s. The work of J.A.D. Ingres, J.L. Gérôme, Pierre Coomans and other Neo-grecs would have certainly contributed to his development.
The popularity of archaeologically accurate pictures was spurred on by the direct involvement of France in excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Such scholarly research prompted painters of Classical themes to widen their knowledge of Roman interiors, dress and implements; by that time it was possible to be archaeologically accurate, even with domestic genre pictures. Alma-Tadema was an early and enthusiastic convert to this trend, and, as much as anyone else, brought depictions of antiquity from an archaeological science to an art.
Other Classical subjects followed at the rate of about one a month. A chat (No 67, 1865), A Roman scribe writing dispatches (No 68, 1865) and A soldier of Marathon (No 69, 1865) all show the same deep, rich, warm tonality and colour schemes reminiscent of Pompeii fresco painting. Although the brushwork during this period was sometimes heavy and the details occasionally clumsy, the total effect was one of great solidity and clarity. The artist's Pompeian period was characterized by classical-antique interiors, full-length figures in the foreground and glimpses of greenery, cornices or sky through windows or doorways in the background. Elements that would remain mainstays of his art throughout his career.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema In the Peristylum
For Derby Day, May 16th, 1866, Gambart decided to give a fancy-dress ball at his home, 62 Avenue Road, St John's Wood, London. He intended to make it the social occasion of the year and sent invitations to the notables among British, Dutch, Flemish, French and German artists. The Alma-Tademas arrived from Brussels the day before the ball, bringing with them one of the artist's finest paintings thus far, In the peristylum (No 75, 1866), which he had finished for the occasion.
By this time Gambart had purchased fourteen pictures, leading Alma-Tadema to believe that his work had found great favour in England. Hence, on being taken around the mansion he was astonished to find that all but one were hanging unsold. Gambart reassured the painter.48 He had absolute confidence in Alma-Tadema's merits and thought it was only a matter of time before his talent would be fully recognized in England. The taste for Alma-Tadema's work was already beginning to unfold and Gambart knew that soon commissions would flow uninterrupted.
On the evening of May 15th temporary gas pipes were fitted in preparation for extended lighting in the billiard-room where the dance was to be held. Exhausted by their long journey the Alma-Tademas retired early to rooms at the front of the house. Unfortunately the work on the gas pipes was faulty and just before eight o'clock the following morning the maid smelt gas. She '...saw something like a flash of lightning, and later remembered no more.'49 The house shook violently with the deafening explosion. The Alma-Tademas were thrown from their bed, and Pauline, already suffering from a nervous condition, experienced serious shock. His Pastimes of ancient Egyptians 3,000 years ago (No 56, 1863) was severely damaged and had to be retouched by the artist.
The party had been planned to coincide with the 13th Annual Exhibition of the French and Flemish Schools at the French Gallery, which had already opened on May 7th. Alma-Tadema had two pictures on view which were receiving critical praise. On May 19th the Illustrated London News engraved one of these, Returning home from market (No 70, 1865), on its center pages. The other, Entrance to a Roman theatre (No 74, 1866), was acclaimed for 'its extraordinary archaeological research'.
By August, Alma-Tadema had finished Tibullus at Delia's (No 77, 1866) which, with a number of his other early paintings, Gambart was selling to a client in America. The last painting of the year, The Armourer's shop in Ancient Rome (No 81, 1866, see illustration p.133) was said to have been influenced by Gérôme. The pinched face of the arms-seller shows a type of realism soon to be abandoned.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Entrance to a Roman theatre
This picture involved an innovation begun by Tadema and his friend the photographer J Dupont, with whom he had traded a painting.50 Dupont, whose studio was in the same building as Alma-Tadema's, photographed the painting in one of its later phases of execution and Alma-Tadema then relied on the photograph for the painting's tonal value, using it to make corrections in the oil. The photographer reshot the picture in its second state. The process might be repeated several times before the completion of a painting. Alma-Tadema continued to use this method for the rest of his life.
A surprise came in October when Alma-Tadema won the prestigious Knighthood of the Order of Leopold at the Exposition Generale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, with his painting Preparations for the festivities (No 72, 1866, see illustration p.132). With such public and official praise, he was now considered to be one of the significant young painters in Brussels.
At the beginning of 1867, Alma-Tadema was finishing a large oil The mummy in the Roman period (No 82, 1867), going back to an Egyptian subject after a hiatus of several years. The painting was larger than any other work he had previously executed for Gambart, full of pathos, in dark and musty colours. It was exhibited in Paris in July and at the Berlin Akademie a year later, meeting with little success, the turbid pigmentation being the source of much criticism.
In March, Gambart moved his London gallery from Trafalgar Square to 22 Albermarle Street. His 14th Annual Exhibition of French and Flemish Schools opened in April, at which Alma-Tadema exhibited two oils. One of these, Tibullus at Delia's (No 77, 1866) was well received by the Art Journal, which described it as a work of 'surpassing mastery' and 'marvelous results'. The honeymoon (reign of Augustus) (No 83, 1867) did not fare so well. The Illustrated London News criticized the bride and groom as ugly and the same issue judged harshly, 'the more than ever grotesque medievalism of Baron Leys and his followers.'51
On May 16th Pauline gave birth to their second daughter, Anna Sauveur, named after Pauline's mother. Anna eventually became an artist, and Alma-Tadema did much to foster her talent. She never had a robust constitution like her father and older sister, and was to suffer from a chronic nervous condition. Within a month of Anna's birth, Alma-Tadema finished a portrait of his wife and their two daughters, entitled My studio (No 85, 1867). Later that year, he painted his family in Roman dress A Roman family (No 93, 1867) in which the artist and his wife are seated on a marble bench; Pauline nurses the baby Anna, whilst the elder child plays with dolls.
Sensing that Alma-Tadema's work needed greater public recognition, Gambart took the opportunity of the forthcoming Exposition Universelle in Paris to enter thirteen of his paintings. Most of these were from the unsold collection that had hung for some time in Gambart's house, and the dealer used them as a publicity feature. This was the heyday of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, and the exhibition, which opened in July 1867, proved extremely popular. Pastimes in Ancient Egypt 3,000 years ago (No 56, 1863) which had already won the small gold medal in the Paris Salon in 1864, was awarded the second class medal, despite its near destruction the previous May.
In spite of Alma-Tadema's success, and the recognition of other classical-antique painters in Brussels such as Pierre Coomans and Joseph Stallaert, he was occasionally chided for the archaeological nature of his art by his more modern-minded contemporaries. Around that time, Tadema used to entertain other artists in his studio on alternate Thursdays. On one such occasion, one of his visitors defied him to paint a Roman picture gallery.52 Alma-Tadema rose to the challenge and began The collector of pictures at the time of Augustus (No 90, 1867).
Seeing the progress of this painting, Gambart asked him to paint a companion piece, a shop of sculpture. Alma-Tadema immediately proceeded to start and complete his A dealer in statues (No 89, 1867, see illustration p.134) before finishing The collector of pictures the following month. These two oils represent his first attempt at painting pictures in pairs or sets. Later, two further sets on the same topic were made for Gambart; the artist almost always painted new versions in different sizes from the original compositions. The theme of the amateur's gallery of art was used no less than ten times by the artist in less than ten years.
It took Alma-Tadema almost three and a half years to fulfil his initial contract with Gambart. The commission was completed in October 1867 with the oil Tarquinius Superbus (No 91, 1867). Thirty-four paintings were produced during this period, and by this time each oil was earning him about �80. Although benefiting from this contractual arrangement, Alma-Tadema's long-term success was not yet assured and the needs of his growing family encouraged him to paint prolifically. Thus when Gambart offered him a second contract, he willingly agreed to paint a further forty-eight pictures at a rising commission scale.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Phidias and the frieze of the Parthenon, Athens
This period in Alma-Tadema's life is not well documented. There is evidence that he visited Italy during the winter of 1867-8 and a number of drawings held at the Birmingham University Library support this theory. One drawing is a study of a female figure with Eros, monogrammed L.A.T. Naples 1868. The cache of drawings were obviously inspired by Pompeii and carry this date. Furthermore, a preliminary drawing for The letter (No 125, 1870) appears to have been made at the site of the Pompeii ruins at around that time. Italian women (No 95, 1867, see illustration p.135) depicted peasant girls at the Italian village of Abruzes on the Adriatic coast. This seems to have been at least partially painted on location; one of the very rare Alma-Tadema oils illustrating contemporary life.
The life-size picture, The siesta (No 101, 1868), Gambart's personal commission, was sent to the Paris Salon instead of London. Alma-Tadema and Gambart had planned to send Phidias and the frieze of the Parthenon, Athens (No 104, 1868) to the Summer Exhibition, London, but to their great regret their desire for a stunning Academy debut was delayed for another year.
David Price, the owner, refused to permit the work to be publicly exhibited. There were also other problems and, since sending-in day was already at hand, little could be done. Inspired by Hammerling's novel Aspasia, this was considered one of Alma-Tadema's most important pictures to date. However, the critics and certain archaeologists refused to believe that the bas-reliefs were worked in situ or that they were so vividly coloured. Yet both matters were later found to favour the artist's interpretation.
Two fine paintings completed during this period were A Roman art lover: (Silver statue) (No 108, 1868), based on identifiable antique sources, and Flowers (No 105, 1868). The latter painting is superior to other major works of the period and shows considerable grace and sensitivity.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Birthchamber, seventeenth century
Upon the artist's return from a holiday in Germany, he sent two paintings to be exhibited in Amsterdam, Flowers to the Royal Academy and A Birthchamber, seventeenth century (No 110, 1869) to the Levende Meesters Exhibition. For these and his general contribution to the art of the Netherlands, King Willem III made him a Knight of the Order of the Dutch Lion.
It was obvious, by this time, that Alma-Tadema's pictures were increasing in sensitivity and tonal quality. Perhaps the influence of his recent Italian trip affected the artist's colour sensibilities or perhaps it was his newly decorated studio which he had changed from deep colours to white and pale green. Edmund Gosse noted that since 1868, 'it is the extraordinary fondness of a play of white, a determination to obtain harmonies in the brightest possible key,' that singled out this artist.53
Gambart wished his protégé to become known outside his own French Gallery, and entered two paintings into the 101st Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The Academy had recently moved from its old quarters at the National Gallery to the more spacious Burlington House in Piccadilly. The two paintings, the best of his work available at the time, A Roman art lover: (Silver statue) (No 108, 1868) and the newly completed and highly original The pyrrhic dance (No 111, 1869) were entered under the category of foreign works.
John Ruskin's antagonism towards the contemporary trend of revisiting Classical antiquity manifested itself in what was to become a life-long criticism of Tadema's work. The bitterest tirade against Alma-Tadema's style in the first years of his English experience came from Ruskin. The critic described The pyrrhic dance, which depicted Greek warriors dancing in full battle dress, in most vivid language:
'the most dastardly of all these representations of classic life, was the little picture called the Pyrrhic Dance, of which the general effect was exactly like a microscopic view of a small detachment of black-beetles in search of a dead rat.'54
Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Pyrrhic dance
On May 28th 1869 Pauline died at Schaerbeek, in Belgium, at the age of thirty-two, after several years of continuous ill health. Her death left Alma-Tadema inconsolate and depressed. He ceased painting for nearly four months. His sister Artje, who lived with the family, continued to help with the two small children then aged five and two.
The first painting completed after Pauline's death was inspired by her illness and entitled The convalescent (No 113, 1869). It depicts a patient anxious to be left alone by her attending slaves. A number of his pieces around 1870 were based on similar themes.
During the summer Tadema himself began to suffer from a medical problem which doctors in Brussels were frustratingly unable to diagnose. Gambart eventually advised him to consult the well-known English physician, Sir Henry Thompson.55 Soon after his arrival in London in December 1869, Alma-Tadema was invited to the home of Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson where he met the painter Ford Madox Brown who asked him to a dance on Boxing Day at his home. There he met the seventeen year old Miss Laura Theresa Epps and, it is said, fell in love with her at first sight.56
Alma-Tadema was immediately attracted to Laura, who was 'tall and slender, elegant and much admired'.57 Although she had received some art training, and studied antique subjects in the British Museum under the guidance of Madox Brown, her family considered her to be a musician. At the time of their meeting, she was attending Bedford College.58
Lawrence Alma-Tadema The vintage festival
The three paintings which were shown at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition in 1870 fared better than the previous year's entries. These were The convalescent (No 113, 1869), The juggler, (No 119, 1870), and A Roman art lover: (The runner) (No 120, 1870). Although this was only his second Summer Exhibition he was becoming known amongst English connoisseurs. Gambart also included some of Alma-Tadema's work in an exhibition at St Mary's Hall in Glasgow. Of this exhibition, William Bell Scott noted that Gambart was, 'working the oracle for Alma-Tadema very successfully'.59
Catullus reading his poems at Lesbia's house (No 121, 1870) was finished in March, to be followed by a long spell in which no other paintings were completed. The reason for this was that Alma-Tadema was working on a major painting, The vintage festival (No 122, 1870), the last of the first set of twelve paintings in Gambart's second commission.
Following the outbreak of hostilities in July 1870 between France and Germany, Alma-Tadema made plans to leave the continent and move to London. When The vintage festival was completed in August, Gambart realized its importance, and offered to pay a higher price for it than had been agreed upon for the first set of pictures. Not only was it to be paid according to the highest set or class, but also at the highest price for any picture in the contract.