Biography of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. Page 8
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. 1994
Chapter 8: The Second English Phase (1884-9)
Lawrence Alma-Tadema 94 Degrees in the shade
number of entirely unrelated circumstances contributed towards marking the transition between Alma-Tadema's early and late English periods. These included the evaluation of his work through the Grosvenor retrospective exhibition, the 1883 researches into Pompeian antiquity, the low level of production caused by the remodelling of his new home and the development in English art of certain plein air schools of painting.
Alma-Tadema's admiration of Pre-Raphaelite painting had undoubtedly liberated him from the unity of colour-hue which had stemmed from his years of study in Belgium. He also respected the values associated with Impressionism and the compositional devices found in Japanese art, whilst remaining aware of the opinions of the critics of the day. Had Alma-Tadema wished to progress as a plein air painter of contemporary subjects he would have undoubtedly been able to succeed, as is demonstrated by 94 Degrees in the shade (No 205, 1876). If he had done so his reputation might well not have suffered the relapse it sustained in the second and third quarters of this century. But he could never find fulfilment in landscape alone, as shown by the large number of unfinished landscape studies in his oeuvre.
Stylistic experiments of the mid-1870s did, however, succeed in moving the subjects, if not the painter, out of doors. This phase showed a greater originality of composition. Going down to the river (No 247, 1879) contains a striking composition and mixture of subjects but was singularly unsuccessful. During his later period he was able to tackle difficult compositional problems effectively without preliminary work. Experiments with striking perspective dislocations that tended to fail in earlier years showed considerable improvement after the mid-1880s.
Hadrian in England (No 295, 1884) was his only ambitious painting of 1884 and occupied Alma-Tadema until the Royal Academy's exhibition in April. The painting was initially intended as a companion to the large A Sculpture Gallery (No 164, 1874) and A Picture Gallery in Rome (No 165, 1874) then owned by Gambart. Although Hadrian in England was voted picture of the year at the Academy, Alma-Tadema was dissatisfied with its general effect and eventually cut it into three sections, no doubt also prompted by its failure to sell.
The Queen of Holland is said to have criticized the slave figure ascending the staircase in a section Alma-Tadema turned into a separate picture (No 298, 1884). It is possible that the Dutch Queen criticized the positioning of the figure rather than the figure itself which is of indisputable quality. Alma-Tadema must have simply faced the fact that despite its brilliant workmanship this remarkable painting failed as a composition.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Who is it?
The small panel Who is it? (No 300, 1884) was the only other ancient-genre picture of 1884. During the year he painted three contemporary portraits which were remunerative and consumed little time. Alma-Tadema had been in need of money since his decision to move into a larger house. Two years earlier he had purchased J J J Tissot's house at 17 Grove End Road, St John's Wood, (later renumbered to 34 in 1901) but until now had been unable to tackle the enormous task of remodelling the large structure.
Unlike the winter of 1875-6 when Alma-Tadema had left the contractors to work on the reconstruction of Townshend House whilst he travelled to Rome, on this occasion he supervised every detail. He wrote to Ebers in August and September about the mammoth task of preparing drawings for the rebuilding of the house and the problems of satisfying the Board of Works and its 'Building Act'. According to Alma-Tadema:
Those gentlemen seem to be happy only when they can annoy...My pictures hardly advance with all that and besides nothing sells either, which makes my future rather dark.116
In a letter to Baroness von Zedlitz, Alma-Tadema explained the reason for spending so much time and effort on his surroundings:
I strove to make [17 Grove End Road] so picturesque and decorated in such diverse styles and feeling that, even if at any time I should not be inclined to work, my eyes must of necessity, in passing from one room to another, fall upon some object exciting enough, in colour or form, as to make me wish to paint. This is the real secret of my having gone so far in acquiring these surroundings, which in their turn have laid so strong a hold on me, and have made me so much their slave, that when I am elsewhere somehow my pleasure in my work diminishes and I feel that I am never really quite satisfied with the results.117
Alma-Tadema wrote to Vosmaer in January 1885 about the current difficulties of completing any pictures, for example The triumph of Titus AD 71 (No 307, 1885) on which he had worked for over a year. In a series of letters to William Walters of Baltimore, Alma-Tadema continuously gave excuses for the late arrival of the painting. He seemed to have become more fastidious than ever with the historical details of this oil and its standard of finish. Although during this period he was generally more concerned with the aesthetic ambience of his work rather than with mere archaeology or verisimilitude, the aesthetic side of Titus suffered in favour of his concern with exactitude to the extent that it could almost be described as an 'ancient photograph'.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema The triumph of Titus AD 71
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Thou rose of all the roses
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Expectations
He exhibited two of his most successful paintings at the Royal Academy's 1885 exhibition. Expectations (No 304, 1885) is delicate and sensitive in tone, hue and drawing, and its stormy appearance was a departure from Tadema's customary crystalline skies. It was later exhibited to good reviews at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. There Robert de la Sizeranne noted that the picture left the dreary realm of great historical events and dwelt upon an anecdotal life, that was uncommonly like our own.118 The other painting shown at the Summer Exhibition, despite Meynell's comment that it was 'weak',119 was his most famous large composition of the decade, A reading from Homer (No 305, 1885). It was painted in the six weeks preceding sending-in day, to replace the originally intended painting which was to have been called, 'Plato', and which after eight months of hard work, did not satisfy the artist.120
Between 1884 and 1887 Henry G Marquand, the noted connoisseur of art and second president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commissioned Alma-Tadema to design the Music Salon of his New York mansion. The Salon was sumptuously arrayed with a ceiling by Lord Leighton, a mythological triptych illustrating music, together with two of Tadema's paintings, Amo te, ama me (No 273, 1881) and A reading from Homer. Alma-Tadema also designed a suite of furniture, including an ornate pianoforte, which the Furniture Gazette of 1887 described as: 'one of the most superb specimens of elaborately artistic workmanship it has ever been our good fortune to see'.121
The Grove End Road house had lain dormant for the last two years awaiting the sale of Townshend House to Henry A Jones, its eventual purchaser. But now work at St. Johns Wood began in earnest and the Alma-Tademas moved out of Townshend House on July 17th, 1885. The only habitable part of the new house was a small studio at the farther end of the garden which, with an apartment, formed an independent building. Alma-Tadema stayed and painted in it for over a year whilst his wife and daughters lived in Windsor, courtesy of a friend who had temporarily moved abroad.122 Once the family moved into the main house, the smaller building was destroyed in order to increase the size of the garden.
Alma-Tadema completed five pictures at this temporary studio, including Thou rose of all the roses (No 310, 1885, see illustration p.143) and An apodyterium (No 312, 1886, see illustration p.144). Both pictures were praised at the Royal Academy's exhibition of 1886. The Pall Mall Gazette voted An apodyterium the 'most attractive' picture, and Misses Vickers by John Singer Sargent the 'least attractive'.123
The work on the house was time-consuming, particularly in view of Alma-Tadema's quest for perfection. So much of 1886 was devoted to its supervision that only three paintings were completed during the year. Two of these were portraits, including one of Mrs Frank D Millet (No 314). Most press reports about Alma-Tadema during this period contained more copy about his home than his art. It soon became one of the most astonishing houses in London; in much the same way as Townshend House only on a much grander scale.
A copper-covered entrance had the Latin word of welcome 'SALVE' above the doorway, and a brass stairway, mistaken by some for gold, led to his studio. A hall of panels, composed of forty-five narrow oil paintings, roughly 32 x 6" (81.2 x 15.2 cm), was constructed around an exedra-shaped wooden bench. Most of the panels had been traded with artist friends.124 As well as being a beautiful and original addition to the house, they were typical of the friendship which existed amongst nineteenth-century artists. Lord Leighton gave his early version of the now famous The Bath of Psyche, in return for which Alma-Tadema eventually presented him with In the corner of my studio (No 356, 1893). Briton Riviere, John Sargent, Alfred Parsons, Sir Edward Poynter and John Collier were among the contributors.
The house contained a small studio in the Dutch seventeenth century style for Laura, and a larger semi-circular domed structure for himself. The dome was covered with costly aluminum giving a bright silvery cast to the atmosphere, an effect clearly evident in the paintings of his later English period.
The Alma-Tadema family finally moved in on November 17th, 1886. The remodelled and enlarged house enabled Alma-Tadema to entertain on a lavish scale during his Monday afternoon openings and his Tuesday evening dinners and concerts. The once demure 'picture Sundays' at St. John's Wood, when studios were opened to the patrons, dealers, critics and friends to view artists' newly finished work before sending-in day at the Royal Academy, began to acquire a pretentious vulgarity. Parties became unwieldy affairs, with admittance cards and rows of carriages, altering forever the hidden Bohemian ambience.
During this period of Alma-Tadema's preoccupation with his home and studio, the Gosses and Mrs Emily Williams often invited Laura and their daughters to join them at Broadway in the Cotswolds. Frank and Lily Millet had been persuaded by the New Yorker, Laurence Hutton to give up their world travels and to settle in Broadway. This picturesque village was perfect for artist-illustrators like Millet, and Edwin Austin Abbey was soon to follow. Henry James extolled the charm of Broadway in Harper's Magazine with phrases such as, 'The place has so much character it rubs off!'125
Soon others joined them, Americans like actress Mary Anderson and Frederick Barnard, illustrator of Dickens, the Epps daughters (Nellie Gosse, Laura Alma-Tadema and Emily Williams) as well as Alfred Parsons and William Lionel Wyllie. It was during one of these visits in the summer of 1885 that Anna Alma-Tadema's portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent in an oil entitled Young girl wearing a white muslin blouse. The Broadway summer was a tonic to Sargent, who was in a convivial yet unhappy convalescence after his 'Madame X' trauma.
Edmund Gosse tells of his surprise at the usually taciturn Sargent's comments on Alma-Tadema's art:
But most revolutionary for me, was his serene and complete refusal to see anything at all in the works of Alma-Tadema, then in the zenith of his fame. 'I suppose it's clever,' he said, 'of course it is clever...like the things you do, don't you know, with a what d'you call...but of course it's not art in any sense whatever,' with which cryptic pronouncement I was left awed and shaken. Sargent's dislike of Alma-Tadema's painting here expressed was accompanied with the highest deference to his knowledge and opinion.126
Sargent's view of Alma-Tadema's art seemed to stem from his theory that an artist should not know too much about the substances they paint. Sargent felt that one should have a love of the paint employed, and a trained keen eye, but should stand before the subject spontaneously. Such theory reflects the influence of the teachings of Claude Monet at Giverny upon Sargent. Perhaps his criticism that Alma-Tadema had, 'no knowledge of the fact that these materials [marble and metal] vary in colour according to the light playing upon them,' led Alma-Tadema to improve vastly his sensitivity to colour nuance during his second English phase, which was just beginning.127 Certainly Sargent's criticism was more valid at the start of the decade than at its conclusion.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema The women of Amphissa
Lawrence Alma-Tadema The roses of Heliogabalus
Back in London that October Sargent was busy at his Tite Street studio painting portraits of which, 'the jolly Alma-Tadema was one of those he was painting.'128 The whereabouts of this portrait is unknown and does not appear in the inventory of Alma-Tadema's possessions. Possibly it was an unfinished oil study. Certainly the time these painters spent together was beneficial to both; Alma-Tadema received a dose of fresh artistic vigour, whilst Sargent's finances were enhanced through Alma-Tadema's introduction of him to the wealthy art patron Henry G Marquand.
The first two oils completed in 1887 were A secret (No 316, 1887) and the important The women of Amphissa (No 317, 1887, see illustration p.145). The latter, Alma-Tadema's principal entry at the 1887 Summer Exhibition, became the subject of a scholarly controversy regarding its source and meaning. The artist viewed the academic dispute with detached interest, but mentioned in a letter to Georg Ebers that the source of his knowledge came through Plutarch, and more directly from George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (Bk II, Ch XVII).129
In early 1887 he began preparations for a sizeable exhibition to be held in June at the Royal Manchester Institution's Jubilee Exhibition commemorating the fiftieth year of Queen Victoria's reign. Thirteen pictures were borrowed from Alma-Tadema's collectors. Although the number of paintings was small compared to those shown at the Grosvenor Gallery, it was nonetheless a considerable display of his best work. Included in the Manchester exhibition were Baron von Schroeder's The vintage festival (No 122, 1870) and A sculpture gallery (No 164, 1874), Henry Mason's The oleander (No 281, 1882, see illustration p.142), Thou rose of all the roses (No 310, 1885, see illustration p.143) from the Holbrook Gaskell collection and An apodyterium (No 312, 1886, see illustration p.144) owned by Samuel Joshua. Other Royal Academicians also participated.
Ill health and continuing work on the new house only permitted Alma-Tadema to complete one picture during the remainder of 1887. The painting, Portia, wife of Brutus (No 319, 1887) was commissioned by the Graphic for the Gallery of Shakespeare's Heroines, an exhibition of twenty-one pieces by some of the most prominent artists of the day, to be shown in Brook Street in February 1888. Alma-Tadema's oil received the highest acclaim.
During most of the latter months of 1887, he worked on the elaborate and important The roses of Heliogabalus (No 321, 1888). As it was painted during the winter, Tadema arranged to have roses sent weekly from the French Riviera for four months to ensure the accuracy of each petal. He wrote to Ebers that 'Of course it is the bad time for roses, but painters are always so contrary to nature, they always want to paint what they have not and what they are longing for.'130 He also told Baroness von Zedlitz, 'My flowers... come from Italy, and sometimes from Algiers, while I am plentifully supplied exotics and English homely blossoms from the country houses of my friends.131 Elsewhere he commented on his petal painting:
The people of today, they will tell you that all this minute detail is not art. But it gives so much pleasure to paint 'em, that I cannot help thinking it will give at least someone pleasure to look at 'em tooo!132
This painting had been commissioned by Sir John Aird for the large sum of �4000, and was Alma-Tadema's only entry in the Academy's Summer Exhibition of 1888. Aird also owned the sketch of the work which was simultaneously on show at the New Gallery. The Magazine of Art commented:
The roses of Mr Alma-Tadema are accepted masterpieces of execution, generally speaking; Roses of Heliogabalus is, to particularize, another masterpiece of execution, in some respects its painter's chef d'oeuvre.133
Although the picture was a success with the public, several other critics attacked its validity for failing to deal with higher moral issues. Harry Quilter insisted, like Ruskin, that such pictures should not be painted if the artist was incapable or unwilling to moralize on the subject of Roman depravity.134
In the autumn of 1887, Charles Hallé and Comyns Carr had left the Grosvenor Gallery to open the New Gallery in Regent Street the following year. The New Gallery's latter opening in May 1888 proved to be the main news of the season. Alma-Tadema had no difficulty in transferring his allegiance from the Grosvenor Gallery and participated with five pieces; Portrait of Lady Kate Fanny Thompson (No 290, 1883); He loves me, he loves me not (No 318, 1887); Study for the roses of Heliogabalus (No 320, 1888), Portrait of the Revd Adama van Scheltema (No 323, 1888), van Scheltema being the minister of the Dutch church of the Austin Friars in London which represented Alma-Tadema's spiritual interest; and Venus and Mars (No 324, 1888), which was completed just in time.
Alma-Tadema continued to exhibit at the New Gallery for the next twelve years. His best work was often shown there, much to the chagrin of the Royal Academy's Council. The New Gallery benefitted to some extent from its later sending-in day, as it was able to receive work which Alma-Tadema had not finished in time for the Academy. He served on the Consultative Committee of the New Gallery with Burn-Jones, Sir Alfred Gilbert, Sir Hubert von Herkomer, Holman Hunt and Sir William Blake Richmond. Lord Leighton never exhibited at the New Gallery, but Millais, Poynter, G F Watts, and Waterhouse supported both institutions.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema A dedication to Bacchus
Lawrence Alma-Tadema The favourite poet
Before the end of the year another four pictures were completed, a water-colour Midday Slumbers (Op. CCLXXV, 1888) for exhibition at the Royal Society of Painters in Water-colours, Portrait of the singer, Jules Dias de Soria (No 325, 1888), At the shrine of Venus (No 326, 1888) which won the Great Gold Medal at the Brussels International Exhibition in 1897, and The favourite poet (No 327, 1888). He was already at work on the following year's A dedication to Bacchus (No 330, 1889).
Alma-Tadema's 1889 exhibition season began with only one entry in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, At the Shrine of Venus, a successful painting which depicted an Ancient Roman hairdresser's emporium. He called the work his 'powder-and-puff' picture, being an ancient version of today's beauty-shop. Punch also thought the picture humorous, for a caricature appeared in May. When initially painted and exhibited, the painting featured very prominently a balustrade, and in Punch's lampoon this appeared as a switchback railway. 'The distinguished artist' wrote Dolman, 'saw that there was a point in the criticism, though humorous, and repainted the picture.'135
The most important painting of 1889 was A dedication to Bacchus (No 330, 1889), commissioned by Gambart for his client Baron von Schroeder of Hamburg. It was painted as a pendant to Schroeder's other Alma-Tadema picture, The vintage festival (No 122, 1870). The painting contained more than sixty figures, and reputedly sold for �7,000, making it one of the most expensive pictures of the nineteenth century. It was later engraved by Auguste Blanchard, and a pamphlet was written about it by Frederick G. Stephens. The fifty-three-page pamphlet explained in scholarly detail the rite of passage being confirmed upon the young Bacchante as a small child. The publication sold for one shilling, and its sales eventually accrued about �2,000.
Once Gambart saw how successful the painting was going to be, he ordered a smaller version (No 331, 1889), ostensibly for the purposes of engraving. The price-for the smaller version was said to have been paid for out of Gambart's profit from the first version. It remained with him in Nice until his death in 1903, when it proved to be the most valuable painting in his estate. It was bought at Christie's by Lord Carysfort for the price of 5,600 guineas.
The year's most important exhibition was the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Alma-Tadema's Expectations (No 304, 1885) and the large canvas The women of Amphissa (No 317, 1887, see illustration p.145) were both exhibited. The painters' jury, on which Great Britain was represented by E Armitage and H W B Davis, pressed successfully for two English artists, Alma-Tadema and Albert Joseph Moore. Lord Leighton and Sir Alfred Gilbert won medals for sculpture. The women of Amphissa won the Medal of Honour. This meant more to Alma-Tadema than many of the honorary titles he often received, as it was awarded for excellence by an international jury. He had been similarly honoured eleven years earlier at the 1878 Exposition Universelle. In contrast to continental practices, very few medals or awards were given in England.
The decade closed with the production of a number of pictures, mostly portraits. The most successful of these was that of his close friend, the landscapist, Ernest Waterlow (No 337, 1889). Alma-Tadema's genre work at that time included Cloaked in yellow (No 329, 1889) of which very little is known, and a fine oil, In a rose garden (No 335, 1889) which contains his best elements: marble, blue sky, roses, bronze reliefs and beautiful women.
His women have often been criticized as being too 'English shop-girlish', and it has been said that the 'recreator of Ancient Rome has never drawn a really pretty woman'.136 Certainly Alma-Tadema did not follow the Hellenic standard of Lord Leighton or Albert Moore as many expected him to, and the beautiful accessories contained in his pictures are generally more readily recalled than the women.