Life Of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
( Originally Published 1902 )
LAURENS ALMA TADEMA was born on January 8th, 1836, at Dronryp, a little town in the very heart of the Frisian province of Holland. Hence by birth Tadema is Dutch, though by residence and naturalization he is now an Englishman. His Dutch birth, as we shall see later, was not without significant effect upon the development and character of his art. The father, Pieter Tadema, was an intelligent lawyer with a pronounced taste for music. Unfortunately, while the young Laurens was still a baby, this parent died, and his education and upbringing were left entirely in the hands of the mother. A woman of unusual capacity, she found herself at an early age with four children upon her hands—two, a girl and our painter, being her own offspring, and two her husband's by a previous marriage. The means at her disposal were small; but undaunted, she put herself to fight single-handed the battle of life, and with such success, that by her unassisted efforts she was able to place all her children well. Laurens, her youngest, was also something of her darling, and even as a child he realized all his mother was doing on her children's behalf. To her early example no doubt are due his great powers of perseverance, his undaunted application, his high-minded sense of duty.
From the very first his favourite plaything was a pencil and paper; he drew as by instinct. A family tradition survives to the effect that before he was five years old, Laurens had corrected an error in a drawing-master's design. Nature her-self, therefore, seems to have pointed out his future career. But so the mother and guardians did not think. Art was regarded in those days as a profession which savoured of a discreditable character, and certainly not as one that could be rendered lucrative. It was therefore resolved that Laurens should follow in his father's foot-steps.
This choice he found irksome to the last degree, and irksome, too, were the preliminary steps. For the dead languages he had no taste, for all dry-bone studies he had little use. His spare hours, and often his lesson hours too, were spent in drawing, and many a time he would have him-self awakened before daybreak in order that he might devote the hours before school time to working at his favourite pastime. He had no masters and little encouragement, nevertheless he plodded on, and with such good results that already, in 1851, he was able to exhibit in a Dutch gallery a portrait he had painted of his sister, a work that even in its immaturity betrays some of the qualities that distinguish his later and greater efforts in this department.
But the dual effort imposed on this young soul by the fight between duty and inclination was too heavy a physical burden for the juvenile shoulders to bear. A collapse of health occurred just as Laurens was growing up, and so serious did it seem that the doctors told the mother and guardians how, seeing the young man was not long for this world, it seemed need-less to mar his few remaining months of existence by forcing him to continue his hated legal studies. For this short period at least he might be allowed to be happy following his bent. But what was the surprise of doctors and guardians when Laurens, as soon as the heavy strain was removed, recovered as though by magic, and rapidly became the sturdy, robust man he has remained all his life.
It was now at last evident to those in authority that Tadema was a genius whose advance must not be thwarted or coerced ; art, therefore, was reluctantly acknowledged to be his proper profession, and to prepare himself for this he sought admission to an art academy.
Strange, nay almost incredible though it sounds, he could gain no admission to those of his native land. Antwerp, at that time a noted artistic centre, proved more discerning and less inhospitable. It chanced that Tadema entered at a moment when the rival claims of French pseudo-classicism and Belgian naturalism were dividing the Academy into factions.
The one, the Pseudo-classic, was headed by Louis David, who at that time was living in Antwerp in exile. The other, called the Belgian-Flemish School, aimed at reviving the ancient Iocal art of the Low Countries. Alma Tadema was not made of the stuff to become a pseudo-classic or a pseudo anything. It was, therefore, quite natural that the young student ranged him-self at once with those who sought to revive the best traditions of the Dutch and Flemish schools.
This native section was led by Wappers, and Tadema soon became one of his most enthusiastic partisans.
A friend who knew him in those days has said, " Tadema did not work at Antwerp, he slaved in his efforts to make up for all the precious time that had been lost." Of his early efforts, however, none have survived. Tadema has no severer critic than Tadema himself, and to this day he will not allow a picture to leave his studio until he has made it as perfect as he knows how, so that he mercilessly destroyed all his tentative canvases that could not yet reproduce the perfected ideals of the master. Even in those early days the subjects belonged either to history proper or that ancient history which is half enveloped in myth.
It was about this time that Tadema added the prefix Alma to the paternal surname. Alma was the name of his godfather, and such a proceeding was, it seems, not unusual in Holland. Tadema's reason for taking this step was that in this wise his name in artistic catalogues was ranged among the A's instead of further down among the T's. Undoubtedly such apparent trifles do prove of consequence in helping or hindering a career.
From the Academy of Antwerp Alma Tadema passed into the studio of Hendrick van Leys, the great Belgian archaeologist and historical painter; his teaching, coming at the moment it did, proved of great value to Alma Tadema. Van Leys was just then busy decorating the Grand Town Hall of Antwerp with frescoes. In this work Alma Tadema was allowed to assist the master, and while so doing the young artist gained knowledge that proved of immense importance to his own after career. To van Leys' influence he owes his own historical ac-curacy and his attention to detail even the most minute. It also helped him to see objects truthfully and, what is equally important, to see them in mass. It is true that for a time van Leys' example was somewhat pernicious, since some of Alma Tadema's works of the period are visibly influenced by his master's dryness and harshness of execution. But the young man's own native bias toward rich and full colour was too strong for any influence long to repress the remarkable and idiosyncratic capacity that throbbed within him and was yearning to find full expression.
The subjects treated by van Leys in the Antwerp Guildhall were all taken from the history of the Low Countries. It was thus that Alma Tadema became acquainted with their early annals by which his own first pictures were inspired.
It was the sale of one of these, The Education of the Children of Clovis, bought by the King of the Belgians, that made it possible for the young artist to call his mother and sister to live with him in Antwerp. This removal of his family gave Alma Tadema intense joy, for he is one of those wholesomely constituted beings to whom family life is an absolute necessity. In order for him to be happy and to have his mind free to work at his congenial occupation, it is needful to his nature that outside circumstances be calm, and that his existence be surrounded by an atmosphere of tenderness and affection.
Four years after joining her son, Madame Tadema died. It is sad to think that this good parent did not live to witness her son's world-wide fame, but pleasant to know that she still heard the praise aroused by some of his first exhibited pictures, and to see him the recipient of his first gold medal, that accorded to him at Amsterdam in 1862. In 1865 Tadema married a French lady, and removed to Brussels, where he remained until his wife's death. This occurred in 1869, when he was left alone with his sister and two little girls, the eldest, Laurence, who has developed into a gifted writer, and the second, Anna, the delicate, dainty artist who has inherited so much of her -father's power for reproducing detail.
It was during the lifetime of his first wife that Alma Tadema paid his first visit to Italy and saw with his own eyes the homes of those Romans who were destined to become his most familiar friends.
This journey, as might be expected, exerted a strong influence upon his art, but it did not entirely reverse all his views and methods, as has been the case with many other artists. The fact is that Alma Tadema had of set purpose avoided going to Italy before this date. On this point he had, and has always had, a very pronounced opinion. According to him the influence of Italy is so potent, so epoch-making in the life of an artist, that he should never go there until he is himself mature and has already found his own road. Otherwise all he sees in that magic land only helps to unsettle him, and hence hinders rather than helps forward the evolutionary development of the man's own artistic idiosyncrasy.
And indeed Alma Tadema's opinion would seem right on this point, though it is in direct opposition to the practice of all the art schools and academies of the world. It is certainly strange how few of those who gain travelling scholarships, of those who are Prix de Rome and are sent to the Villa Medici, become great and original artists.
Speaking on this theme one day Tadema remarked, " Of what use is it to try and graft a branch laden with fruit upon a sapling. If the sapling has no trunk how is it possible to effect a graft ? Rubens followed the right principle, and so after having extracted from foreign travel the best it could give he still remained Rubens. But what would have happened if he had under-taken his journey prematurely, that is to say before the artist inside him was fully developed?"
On another occasion Alma Tadema expressed his views on the same subject : " It is my belief that an art student ought not to travel. When once he has become an artist, conscious of his own aim, of his own wants, he will certainly profit by seeing the works of the great masters, because he will then be able to understand them, and can then, if necessary, appropriate such things as may appear useful to him. With one or two exceptions the Prix de Rome men are not the foremost of their day. Meissonier, Gérôme, van Leys, remained at home till they had become consummate artists. Rembrandt never left Amsterdam, and Rubens, when travelling through Italy, made some sketches after Lionardo da Vinci which might pass as original Rubens, because Rubens was already Rubens when he did them. Vandyck and Velasquez travelled when they were already Vandyck and Velasquez, but not before."
The great picture dealer in those early days of Alma Tadema's art life was the Frenchman, M. Gambart, " Prince Gambart," as he used to be called in playful irony, for it was he who con-trolled and regulated the picture market of Europe, to the immense benefit of his own pocket. It is but fair, however, to add that he was a generous as well as a discerning dealer. When he was visiting any city in his commercial capa-city, the whisper " Gambart is here ! " would run round all the studios, and many a plot did unknown young artists lay in order to wile him into their workshops, and keen was the disappointment if the great man left the city after visiting only the studios of one or two of the most noted men, ignorant of all the schemes and plans that had been laid to entrap him.
The young Alma Tadema was among those who plotted to secure a visit from the great Gambart, and he too was doomed to see his hopes dashed. At last, however, these hopes were fulfilled. * It was thanks to van Leys, who had purposely given a wrong address to Gambart's coachman, directed to carry his master to the studio of a painter then much en vogue. Hence it came that the great dealer found him-self in front of Alma Tadema's modest studio instead. In the doorway stood the young artist palpitating with excitement. Gambart, who by this time had perceived his error, was too good-natured to turn back without entering. After he had looked at the work upon the easel in silence, he suddenly asked in brusque tones, " Do you mean to tell me you painted this picture?" Alma Tadema bowed his acquiescence, he was too overcome to speak. " Well," replied the dealer, after asking the price and a few other details, " turn me out twenty-four other pictures of this kind and I will pay for them at progressive prices, raising the figure after each half dozen."
This was indeed an unexpected stroke of good fortune for Alma Tadema, who at once set to work to fulfil his commission. It was not all plain sailing however. Gambart wished to pin down the wings of the artist's fantasy, and it was only after long discussion and bargaining that he permitted the painter to choose his themes from among classical subjects instead of remaining among those of the Middle Ages in which he had first found him engaged.
It was thus that some of the most famous of the artist's earlier works were included in this series ordered at so much the half dozen, as if they had been gloves or any article of haberdashery.
It took Alma Tadema four years to carry out Gambart's first commission. When he was at the finish of his task, Gambart once more appeared upon the scene.
" I want you to paint me another twenty-four pictures," was the quaint order given by this dealer—Maecenas again offering to remunerate Alma Tadema at an ascending rate of payment, only this time the starting point was a very much higher figure.
Once more the artist consented. The first work of the new series was the famous Vintage. When the dealer saw it he perceived that it was a far more important canvas than any of its predecessors, a work, too, that had cost the artist far more time and labour, and he at once insisted upon paying for it the figure which was to have been given for the last half dozen. For Gambart, despite his profession and his bizarre ways, was liberal and generous, and perhaps he understood too that it paid to be honest.
Alma Tadema is fond of telling the tale how, when he had finished his second two dozen pictures, Gambart invited him and the whole artistic colony of Brussels to dinner. To our artist's no small surprise, he found that it was he who was the guest of honour. In front of his plate there shone a silver goblet bearing a most flattering inscription, while into his table-napkin was folded a large cheque, a sum accorded to him by Gambart beyond the stipulated price.
An accident brought Tadema to London in 1870, and here he at once took root. A year later he remarried, his wife this time being Miss Laura Theresa Epps, a woman of rare beauty, and herself a painter of distinction.
For many years Tadema's home was in Regent's Park Road, a modest London residence which by his ingenuity he transformed into a fairy palace. He afterwards moved into larger quarters in Grove End Road, where he has reared a house entirely upon his own designs that repeats on a larger and more sumptuous scale the beauties of the earlier residence.
In Alma Tadema's case the environment does indeed explain the man. His keen sense of beauty, his classic tastes, his love of flowers, make themselves felt in every nook and corner of his abode; in the silver-walled studio with its onyx windows, in its mosaic atrium, in which a fountain splashes, in Lady Tadema's special room with its oak-beamed ceiling, its Dutch panelling, its old Dutch furniture, in its low-windowed library packed with splendid illustrated works on artistic themes, in its pretty garden ever gay with blossoms, with its fish pond and trellised colonnade. In almost every room can be reconstructed the scenes of his pictures ; the lustrous marble basin in the sky-lit atrium bears upon its sloping rim a heap of withered rose leaves, faintly recording that rich shower of fragrance which once suggested a striking detail in the Heliogabalus picture. The burnished brass steps appearing at frequent intervals figure over and over again in the pictures of Roman villas and classical environments. Perhaps one of the most striking features of this house, which is filled with objects of priceless worth, is its unevenness of pavement. There are such endless nooks and alcoves, each room is conceived upon a different scale and may be lower or higher than its immediate neighbour, and yet, most marvellous of all, the cluster of beautiful apartments perfectly harmonize one with another. From the oblong entrance hall, over whose fire-place runs the greeting,
" I count myself in nothing else so happy
whose wall decorations consist in panels painted for the artist by his friends, to the low-lying dining-room, looking upon the garden and shaded by the great tree which it is Tadema's delight to watch in its leaf unfolding, its full summer verdure and its winter gauntness, all is beautiful, all is sympathetic, and all is the result of an ardent appreciation of the artistic possibilities of the most humble objects of domestic life.
Through all the rooms are scattered portraits of its beautiful women inmates, here a statue of Lady Alma Tadema, there a window into whose delicately coloured panes are fashioned the likenesses of the quaint little girls who have now grown to women, outside under the window of these same daughters' room is a beautiful bit of sculptured frieze bearing the interwoven tulips of Holland, lilies of France, and English roses.
The most frequent guest finds continual surprises in this house whose every accessory is as carefully conceived as one of the details of its master's pictures.
Holland, Greece, London and Rome have all contributed their quota to render this house sui generis, and once we have passed the postern gate that leads from Grove End Road into the garden we instinctively feel ourselves incorporated into another world, another clime, and Lon-don and its squalor, its fogs and cold, are for-gotten for a time.
It is in this congenial milieu that the artist works, a milieu helpful and suggestive to the special character of his art. His life since his removal to England has been uneventful. The saying, "Happy those who have no history" might be applied to Tadema. Hard work, persistent study, unremitting efforts after ever greater perfection of style and treatment, sum up Alma Tadema's artistic existence.
He is essentially a sociable man, a lover of his kind. His work is only interrupted by visits from friends, by weekly afternoon and evening receptions, so charming that the entrée is greatly coveted, by the claims upon his time as Professor at the Royal Academy and member of the Council ; demands all of which he fulfils with his characteristic strenuousness and high sense of duty. In 1876 he became an Associate Member of the Royal Academy, and in 1879 a Royal Academician. In 1899 he received the well-merited honour of knighthood at the hands of Queen Victoria.
It is not often that Alma Tadema leaves the house to which he is devoted, both for its beauty and because it harbours all whom he holds dear, for he is essentially a domestic man. Occasional visits to the English country, which he greatly admires, and rare trips to Italy, which he naturally loves, are all the holidays he allows himself, and even during such changes of place he does not permit himself rest, but is ever studying fresh effects of light and colour, fresh combinations, imbibing fresh artistic suggestions. Nothing escapes Tadema's wide-open eyes ; he is never too weary to receive a new impression.
As a man he has about him no trace of the pedantry which might be anticipated from the archaic character of his work. He is generous, genial, warm-hearted, a lover of jokes and anecdotes good and bad, a cheery optimist, a boon companion in the best sense of that term. He is also the truest and most faithful of friends, and the kindest and: most large-hearted of teachers. His appreciation of the works of others is wide and sincere, and, no matter how different this work may be from his own style and taste, he gives to it its due meed of praise, provided it be executed with honest intent.
London society is familiar with this wiry, strong-set figure, with this face of kindly comeliness, with the cheery voice, with the frank, observant eye, the merry quips and pranks, the energy, the intense love of all that is great, and good, and lovely. To be with him is to feel invigorated, for he seems to have so much superfluous vitality that he is able to dispense it to his surroundings.
Of his art he rarely speaks, and still more rarely of his art-theories. Indeed he is no theorist, though he knows perfectly well at what ends he aims, and his art, like his personality, is homogeneous throughout. But it is not in his nature to analyze, he follows his instincts, and these are true and right. " To thine own self be true," has been his life motto, and faithfully has he served it.