Biography of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. Page 9
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. 1994
Chapter 9: Theatrical Preoccupations (1890-8)
Lawrence Alma-Tadema The baths of Caracalla
he first painting of 1890 was Eloquent silence (No 338, 1890), which appears to have been influenced by his recent activity in the theatre. After the heavy criticism in 1883 that his models were 'dull and lifeless', this new direction seemed to invigorate his portrayal of human figures which began to take on a more personal sense of interaction.
The frigidarium (No 339, 1890) was one of Tadema's three entries in the 1890 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The New Gallery exhibited In a rose garden (No 335, 1889), the most praised picture of the show; also show was Alma-Tadema's Eloquent silence, which was later engraved by P J Arendsen; and the minor Portrait of Miss MacWhirter (No 333, 1889).
Due to numerous demands on their time, the Tademas had been unable to leave London for a holiday in the past five years, but once the current obligations to the Royal Academy and the New Gallery were fulfilled, they left for the continent on May 10th in order to join the Georg Ebers family for the latter's silver wedding celebrations.
The Ebers's summer home in Bavaria at Tutzing was on the shores of the Starnberger See, in an area of great scenic beauty. There Alma-Tadema completed a small, seemingly insignificant, oil study of a bronze Byzantine lion on the shore of the Starnberger See [lake] with the Bavarian Alps in the background. Entitled, A lake in Bavaria (No 340, 1890) it was later to prove of great importance to the artist's oeuvre. Some of his most important perspective pictures of the 1890s can be traced back to this unassuming study. The Alma-Tademas left the Ebers's home on May 28th for Munich, where they were not impressed with the current trends in modern art.137 They travelled to Regensburg and Paris where they viewed the Salon, returning to London on June 10th.
The first picture completed after the journey was the small Promise of spring (No 341, 1890). Alma-Tadema seems to have spent the latter part of the year on the Portrait of Rt Hon Arthur James Balfour (No 344, 1891) and the tender An earthly Paradise (No 345, 1891, see illustration p146). During the last three months of 1890, Alma-Tadema complained that he was unable to paint. He had some difficulty with the Balfour portrait, but this was eventually perfected to his satisfaction. By this time Alma-Tadema's pace had slowed considerably. According to his wife, he became increasingly fastidious, but as his rate of production slackened, the quality of his work increased.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema An earthly paradise
Detail from The kiss
The entries for the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition for 1891 were An earthly paradise and the portrait of James Balfour (No 344, 1891). An earthly paradise was inspired by Swinburne's poem, 'All Heaven's Heaven, in One Little Child', and reflects Alma-Tadema's love of children and family life. William Quiller Orchardson used this painting as the basis for his own picture Master's Baby. When Alma-Tadema was informed of Orchardson's obvious plagiarism, he blithely quipped, 'Those who follow will never see but the master's back!'138
Alma-Tadema's Portrait of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (No 350, 1891) was exhibited at the Birmingham Royal Society of Artists in September and the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in November. The last painting of the year was The kiss (No 351, 1891) for Sir Max Waechter of Surrey. Its background was taken from the oil sketch which Tadema had painted whilst staying with the Ebers family in Tutzing.
The kiss depicts a young Roman mother with her child, who is kissing her aunt goodbye. The aunt stoops to kiss her niece as a boat awaits to take them home again. Alma-Tadema told Frederick Dolman that this oil was his second most favourite picture by his own hand.139 The reviewer for the Academy magazine liked the picture:
The atmospheric effect of the open air, imperceptibly enveloping the figures is well given, the general tonality of an exquisite delicacy and unity, while an unusual charm is communicated to the work by a faint but sufficient note of human sympathy... just that indefinable quality which the Dutch master, as a rule so conspicuously lacks.140
With works like the highly important oils An earthly paradise, Love's votaries (No 347, 1891) which was exhibited at the New Gallery, and The kiss 1891 proved to be something of a breakthrough. Alma-Tadema's motto was often advocated in his work, 'Nothing can be done well without taking trouble, you must work hard if you mean to succeed.'141
He was most careful with the constitution of his paints so that his pictures might endure. He purchased paints from Mommen in Brussels and Windsor & Newton in London. Asked if he used many paints he answered, 'No, siennas and ochres of the simpler and more old fashioned kinds are those I prefer.142
He was of the firm conviction that the colours on his palette should either be entirely mineral or vegetable paints. He worried that if they were mixed it would be perilous to the durability of his picture in years to come. It seems that he did not use the new coal-tar paints being employed by the French Impressionists of his day.
In 1887 Tristram J Ellis published details of Tadema's palette as given to him by the artist in 1879. It lists eleven colours with two supplementary ones.143 Tadema described to Zedlitz his exact painting process:
I generally make a slight sketch of the picture I am going to paint...directly on the respective canvas or panel. As it is most essential that the composition should be well posed, so as to direct the attention of the spectator to the chief object in the scene, I arrange and alter the positions of my group many, many times until I am absolutely satisfied with the composing of the tout ensemble.
Not until the scene is complete and the canvas is covered with a thin oil colour, so as to do away with the disturbing whiteness of the material, does the real work begin. Then I give untiring attention to the perspective of the different parts of the scenery in the picture and accessories, for nothing is more bewildering than an inaccurate delineation in the outset of a painting, especially when the introduction of elaborate architecture or decorative structures is contemplated.
I paint my figures direct from life in every instance, and always insist that they should be dressed and coiffured as completely as though they were sitting for the finishing touches.144
Even though only a handful of unfinished oils of figures or genre scenes by Alma-Tadema exist, his working method can still be ascertained. His initial quick sketching on the creamy-white prepared canvas or panel was done with either a graphite pencil or a blue crayon. From the overlapping lines he proceeded to refine the composition. It is also clear that during this later period he dispensed with any necessity for preliminary drawings. The intuitive response of his experienced and inventive mind was permitted self-expression.
Next came a brushed-in sketch in ivory-black thinned with turpentine. As graceful and slight as the crayon drawing, the angular brush-work was almost Germanic in its expressionism. 'A thin oil colour outline of some neutral colour is used for this [and] sometimes the figures are painted at once. The whole canvas is now filled in, rather as a piece of cloisonn� might be with colour...' [wrote Ellen Gosse].145 She also noted that even at this most elemental stage, 'All the sketching in of the figures is done with the help of nature.'
The harsh edges of the second stage were often assuaged whilst the paint was still wet by brushing in the delicate tones, hues and details of the figures themselves. Often he would bring these figures almost to a conclusion at the first sitting. Sometimes he would work exclusively on one part of the picture whilst ignoring another and leaving it in a more primitive stage. The thin opaque paint-into-glaze technique allowed Alma-Tadema to use the subdued whiteness of the canvas for highlights.
The next step was to work out problems and details of setting and architecture. Ellen Gosse reported on this aspect of his work:
If the picture contained elaborate architecture, he sometimes had a paper of the same size as the canvas stretched across a board and the whole building... parts of which were to appear in the picture...drawn out carefully to scale by an [architect] assistant, with roof, sculptured columns, and elaborate tessellated pavement completed, untiring attention being paid to the perspective of the different parts. Unfortunately, he had always to do it afresh, as it was never good enough, and therefore he has abandoned this plan, and tries now himself to work out his backgrounds on the picture itself so completely and so thoroughly that an actual building could be constructed by following the plans for it.146
Some aspects of Alma-Tadema's technique are still undefined. Dennis Lascelles, an American painter, has spent considerable time investigating them.147 He contends, that for the final stage, Alma-Tadema used very thick and rich demi-paste pigment. His oils were supple and demonstrate that he did glaze and scumble. Alma-Tadema mentioned to George Henschel that he did not varnish; yet with pigment in the thick oil medium used at all levels of finish, his pictures needed no varnish. Unfortunately about one paining per year is being destroyed by incompetent restorers who do not appreciate this fact.
Even when a work of art was finished, the artist was known to take it back from the owner to repaint some insufficiently finished area. Occasionally one may wish for a cessation from all Alma-Tadema's detail and endless labour. A little more uncertainty and indistinctness could have given his work some relief from there unrelenting 'painstakingness'.
The Tademas left London in May of 1892 to stay with Edwin Austin Abbey at Morgan Hall in Fairford, Gloucestershire, the first of many visits. At that time John Singer Sargent and Abbey shared a studio at the Hall, and the three artists had many artistic conversations during this and subsequent visits. Abbey wrote of these 'tremendous discussions':
But very, very rare the artist who, like Tadema, can thus put himself 'en rapport' with his work of another artist whose work and methods are so wholly different from his own.148
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Comparisons
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Unconscious Rivals
Alma-Tadema's last picture of 1892 was Courtship (No 353, 1892), in which he experimented with relating the proportions of a large column to the human figure. Although the composition is flawless, he created an anachronism by seating the future bride on a modern wicker chair.
During 1893 Alma-Tadema painted three portraits and three genre pieces. At the Academy's Summer Exhibition he showed his Portrait of Dr Joseph Joachim (No 355, 1893) the German musician and conductor who had often performed at Alma-Tadema's house. The portrait was exhibited at Antwerp in 1895 and was partially responsible for Alma-Tadema being made an Officer of the Order of Leopold of Belgium. The Royal Academy also exhibited Comparisons (No 354, 1892) and the newly completed In the corner of my studio (No 356, 1893). The latter was painted in exchange for Lord Leighton's contribution to Alma-Tadema's hall of panels, entitled The Bath of Psyche. Following the studio opening on Sunday, April 9th, 1893, Miss Laurense Alma-Tadema wrote to Ebers that nearly 300 people came to view her father's Academy entries.149
The New Gallery showed the important oil Unconscious rivals (No 358, 1893) with its astonishing barrel vault, which was originally used in Spring (No 363, 1894). Although Spring may have been begun earlier than Unconscious rivals Alma-Tadema could not resolve the picture satisfactorily and felt that it had become overworked. He therefore removed the barrel vault to the dismay of his friends who considered it the best part of the picture. To placate them he re-introduced it into Unconscious rivals.
During the summer of 1893 a number of Alma-Tadema's pictures were shown at the British Section of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. An audience at Agrippa's, (No 197, 1875) and A dedication to Bacchus (No 331, 1889) won diplomas. But the most notable item of the British Section was Alma-Tadema's A sculpture gallery (No 193, 1875, see illustration p.139). Until this exhibition the United States had not had an opportunity to see Alma-Tadema's work since the centennial year of 1876, but from 1893 onwards his popularity increased dramatically in America and unlike England continued long after his death.
Since his return from Tutzing in 1890 Alma-Tadema had been painting a canvas entitled At the close of a joyful day (No 361, 1894). The picture was now all but signed, and he wrote to Ebers expressing his joy:
I succeeded in my work which is more beautiful, especially as it is on a picture begun two years ago which would not come right, now I got it I believe and can hardly think of anything else. It is a single figure girl, [who] has ascended to the highest point of a building to see far away out of the picture over some sort of Starnberger See, a second use of the study I painted when with you mingled with recollections...so you see my mind is still often with the dear friend at Tutzing.150
Only two paintings were entered for the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition of 1894, Alma-Tadema's minor Portrait of Mrs Theyre Smith (No 360, 1893) and the important At the close of a joyful day (No 361, 1894). In May he completed The benediction (No 362, 1894) just in time for the New Gallery's seventh exhibition. This picture incorporated several elements of architecture and decoration from his home at 17 Grove End Road, especially the brass stairway and zodiacal shield.
For the past year Laura had not felt well, and her condition worsened throughout the first half of 1894. On July 17th, Laura and Anna left London for a cure at Bad Kissinger in Germany. Alma-Tadema had prevented an earlier departure and had hoped to accompany them at this stage, but was engrossed in his work on Spring (No 363, 1894) which had stood on his easel for nearly four years. One of the difficulties of Spring according to Bulgakov, was that, 'The original draft of this painting was done...to the rules of so-called classical composition, but Alma-Tadema subjected it to his radical alterations.'151
Once the picture was completed, Alma-Tadema took it immediately to Berlin where it was to hang at the Academy. He later joined Laura and Anna in Bad Kissinger. The plan was for the entire family to attend the wedding of Ebers's daughter in Munich on August 10th, but it soon became evident that Laura would not be well enough to travel, and Anna needed to remain with her. Alma-Tadema wrote to Ebers explaining the situation and left for Munich alone on August 9th.152
The worsening of her undiagnosed disease persuaded Alma-Tadema to make arrangements with a clinic in Wiesbaden, where the family arrived on August 21st expecting to stay only ten days. In any event Alma-Tadema did not arrive back in London until September 25th with Laura and Anna following on the 29th.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Coign of vantage
The long awaited oil Love's jewelled fetter (No 366, 1895) was completed in February, and exhibited at the New Gallery in May. Unlike most of his work, the inspiration for this painting came from literature. The anecdote was taken from Carel Vosmaer's novella Amazone, which Tadema took the liberty of placing in the Ancient Classical past.153 Eber's fictional study was about a Dutch artist, Aisma, thinly disguised as Alma-Tadema, who had given an engagement ring (the fetter) to Maricana his love.
Fortune's favourite (No 367, 1895) also took four years to be completed, influenced like others of the period, by Alma-Tadema's visit to Tutzing in 1890. Its acute perspective and inland sea are reminiscent of the Starnberger See rather than Capri. Unfortunately, the painting was not completed in time for the Royal Academy Exhibition and was not seen by the London public until Alma(Tadema's memorial show in 1913. Robert Mendelssohn(Bartholdy of Berlin purchased Fortune's favourite and Spring, (No 363, 1894) which he had seen at the Berlin Academy the previous year, for exorbitant prices.
In September Alma-Tadema completed Unwelcome confidence (No 370, 1895, see illustration p.147) commissioned by Arthur Tooth & Sons in London for M. Knoedler's client Mr Borden of New York. Most of Alma-Tadema's later production was, in fact, sold between these two dealers with much of the important work going to New York patrons.
The Alma-Tademas had a pleasant stay in Paris in October, and on their return the artist was able to complete Coign of vantage (No 371, 1895). To many of his followers, this painting is his consummate and most exhilarating work. It falls into the same category as the other paintings which were influenced by the 1890 visit to Tutzing, and even includes the bronze lion from Ebers's home. The small picture is considered today one of Alma-Tadema's most popular works. Strangely the painting was almost unknown in Alma-Tadema's lifetime. It was sold to an American collector immediately after completion and thus lost to the media and exhibitions. It resurfaced in 1940 and was not exhibited until 1973 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
January brought the news of Lord Leighton's death. As the leading Classical painter of his day Leighton had much in common with Alma-Tadema and although their personalities differed, they had great respect for one another. When William Morris died in October, Alma-Tadema wrote to Burne-Jones with tenderness and sympathy:
When a friend loses half his soul, indeed one weeps with him... When the art world in which one has grown up and for which one lives loses one of its first prophets and supporters, one feels as if it was all over. Therefore I must tell you how dejected I feel and how sore at heart I am on hearing of the death of William Morris. The country is the poorer and the century finishes with a great anguish.154
Alma-Tadema completed seven oils during 1896. The first two were exhibited at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, Whispering noon (No 373, 1896) and the important The Coliseum (No 374, 1896). F G Stephens wrote long passages in the Athenaeum on The Coliseum, which he felt was Alma-Tadema's masterpiece to date. The following year Stephens wrote a pamphlet about the picture for its owners, Arthur Tooth & Sons in London.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Coliseum
The Coliseum is particularly interesting because of its use of reference material from antiquity and the clever way it was incorporated into the painting. This picture epitomizes all the strengths of Alma-Tadema's art and may rightfully be considered to be one of his very best large pictures.
Alma-Tadema had a large exhibition at the Royal Society of Artists in Birmingham for their thirty-first Spring Exhibition of 1896. As he had been re-elected as their President in 1895, and was to finish his term during the Autumn Exhibition, it was appropriate that he should have a special showing of his work.
This was the third largest retrospective of the artist's work after the 1882-3 exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery and the 1913 memorial show at the Royal Academy. Fifty-one pictures were exhibited including some of his best pieces. Past and present generations (No 364, 1894) was the most recent of his oils to be shown because several painted in the intervening years had been sent to America.
Interestingly none of Alma-Tadema's biographers even mention this important retrospective and none of the nineteen known autograph letters from 1896 note the show! The exhibition was a political disaster for the artist, who then sought to cover-up the entire incident. As the principal feature of the Spring Exhibition he was extended special privileges. When his collection of pictures were finally hung by the hanging committee, Alma-Tadema was invited to make any alterations to the installation he thought necessary.
That evening the Societies vice president, the architect J A Chawin gave a dinner to which the member artists were invited to meet the distinguished London academician. The word soon passed around that Alma-Tadema had 'outed' most of the member's entries from the large gallery and hung his own in a single line! Edward Harper wrote of the faux pas:
Persuasion and the presence of our host, prevented any demonstration however, but suppressed explosive sounds were heard at intervals, and on the whole it must have been a wonderful piece of self-restraint, for Tadema himself was serenely unconscious of anything wrong, but all through the evening told stories in quaint broken English, some of which he must have unearthed during his study of antiquities.155
Little wonder that, once appraised of the problem Alma-Tadema's embarrassment precluded any reference to this trying circumstance. Never one to tell of his own shortcomings the above incident reveals volumes about the childishness of the painter.
As a result of his interest and activity in the British theatre during the 1870s and 1880s, Alma-Tadema had been elected an honorary member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society in February 1890. Working with the OUDS was his second major effort in the field. He was particularly interested in stage design, and befriended the scene painter, Joseph Harker, at this time.156 They had worked together at the Haymarket, His Majesty's Theatre, Daly's and now for the OUDS, with Alma-Tadema lending his expertise for the archaeological accuracy of the settings. One of the plays in which he collaborated with Harker in 1890 was Strafford. Sir Henry Irving and Arthur Bouchier, both of whom were to have considerable influence over Alma-Tadema's contribution to stage design, had leading parts.
Following the success of their previous collaborations, Sir Henry Irving had asked Alma-Tadema in 1895 to assist him with the production of Julius Caesar for the Lyceum Theatre. However, very early in their involvement the entire project seemed ill-fated. Sir Henry wanted Alma-Tadema to proceed using scenes from other artists. The rift occurred when he requested Alma-Tadema to use the work of the French artist Jean-L&@233;on Gérôme as a model. Greatly annoyed, Alma-Tadema wrote to George Henschel in October 1865:
I am very sorry indeed that we are not going to be associated with Julius Caesar at the Lyceum. I too find it incredible that a man like Irving should lack judgement in what is due to an artist. He already bothered me to imitate Gérome's pictures amongst my scenes. As if I could be brought to copy another and make what you so rightly call 'patchwork'...157
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Sponges and strigils
The project appeared to have been dropped in 1895, when Alma-Tadema started work with Sir Henry on Cymbeline instead. Tadema designed the scenery and stage sets whilst Comyns Carr, the managing director and adviser to the Lyceum theatre chose the best stage-scene painters to execute Alma-Tadema's designs. Unlike his other productions, Cymbeline was set in an English period when architecture was mainly based on wood. Sir Henry Irving praised Alma-Tadema's contribution in the highest terms and all was forgiven.
Because of Alma-Tadema's creditable designs for the earlier production of Julius Caesar for the OUDS, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree asked him to return to the project. Eventually Tree opened Julius Caesar in January 1898 at Her Majesty's Theatre. This production matched in quality any previous Irving attempt, and proved to be a financial and artistic success.
Alma-Tadema had begun work on the play towards the beginning of 1897 and was responsible for the designs of costumes and scenery more lavish than any he had previously encountered. The play opened on January 22nd, 1898 to the acclaim of critics and public alike. George Bernard Shaw wrote that whilst Alma-Tadema was the hero of the evening, the stage carpenters seemed intent on spoiling the pictures. The play ran for five months and helped establish Alma-Tadema as a prominent figure in the British theatre. In reminiscing about this work Alma-Tadema wrote, "It has been suggested that I found in these matters pleasant relaxation! It was harder work than painting."158
Alma-Tadema's theatrical efforts had divided his attention at the very moment when he was achieving his finest expression as an artist. The case can be made, however, that his work for the theatre ultimately proved highly beneficial to the development of his painting. Whether or not the theatre exerted a positive influence on his art, Sir Henry Irving's grandson, Laurence Henry Irving (the art director for Douglas Fairbanks's films) claimed that Alma-Tadema's theatre work had a profound influence on the film industry during the 1920s to the 1960's cinematic spectaculars.159
In spite of his work for the theatre, Alma-Tadema succeeded in completing six oils and numerous drawings during 1897. The two pictures for the RA Summer Exhibition were both finished in March. By his standards, Watching and waiting (No 381, 1897) and Her eyes are with her thoughts, and they are far away (No 382, 1897) were fairly large. Both deal with love that is ill-starred and unrequited. They reveal Alma-Tadema's typically Victorian interest in attaching poems to his pictures which hint at their meaning. Watching and waiting was based on a poem by Tennyson, whilst Her eyes are..., appears to have been inspired by Lord Byron's lines in 'The dying gladiator' from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
He heard it, but he heeded not...his eyes,
were with his heart, and that was far away;
He recked not of the life he lost, nor prized,
but where his rude hut by the Danube lay.
There where his young barbarians all at play,
there was their Dacian mother...he, their sire
butchered to make a Roman holiday.160
Although Byron's verse does not coincide with Alma-Tadema's more idyllic disposition, the artist found the 'Dacian-mother' element of the story more interesting. Alma-Tadema replays the poem with a picture of the barbarian gladiator's beautiful wife, who was also taken into slavery, as a patrician's mistress. Her fate, like that of her husband in the poem, was to make a 'Roman holiday' for their masters, he to the gladiatorial bouts in the Coliseum, and she as a captive courtesan in a splendid marble palace. Her eyes are turned northward and her thoughts are with her dying husband. The sentiment brings this subject into painful focus, disclosing one of Alma-Tadema's more sullen creations.
The last two of Alma-Tadema's 1897 pictures were sent to America after completion, including Wandering thoughts (No 383, 1897) and Melody on a Mediterranean terrace (No 384, 1897). Perhaps the most important painting of the year was Roses, Love's Delight (No 385, 1897) which was popularized by a photogravure. The painting was purchased by Czar Nicolas II of Russia from an exhibition of English art held in St Petersburg during the winter of 1897-8. It is an example of Alma-Tadema's compositional device of light foreground, darker middle ground and finally a brilliantly coloured background. The transition between these receding areas was usually made by a series of platforms or architectural diagonals.
Another exhibition that occupied Alma-Tadema was the Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels during the spring and summer of 1897. The international jury awarded him a Great Gold Medal for his entries At the shrine of Venus (No 326, 1888), Whispering noon, (No 373, 1896) and Sponges and strigils (Op. CXCVII, water-colour, 1879). Both Laura and Anna had contributed, and this was the first time that all three artists had their work shown in the same major international exhibition together.