Work Of Alma Tadema
( Originally Published 1902 )
THE first in date of Alma Tadema's. preserved paintings is a cycle of pictures dealing with Merovingian times. To these Merovingians he was early attracted, partly perhaps because in his old home and birthplace relics, such as coins, medals, armour belonging to that epoch were the only antiquities the soil could boast. Added to this, chance threw into his way Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks and the quaint old chronicler completely captivated his fancy. From this treasure-house of fact and fiction he drew a series of pictures which, if no more historically correct than Gregory himself, were nevertheless carefully pondered pieces of archeological improvisation in which the minute studies of accessories made while still in Frisia stood Alma Tadema in good stead. Clotilde at the Grave of her Grand-children was an incident entirely without foundation in fact, but one of Gregory's stories had suggested the situation, and Tadema at once realized its dramatic and pictorial possibilities. In treatment this canvas was still a little hard and dry, the influence of van Leys' somewhat arid manner was too apparent. The same criticism applies, but in a less degree, to its successor, the work that won for Alma Tadema his first success, The Education of the Children of Clovis. This, too, was inspired by the old Frankish chronicler, and here also, as often in Alma Tadema's art, a good deal of previous knowledge is requisite in order fully to appreciate the composition. It cannot be denied that this is one of the difficulties of truly understanding the painter's work. His subjects are apt to be at times a little too archaeological, a little too literary for immediate or easy explanation. Their atmosphere is inclined to be somewhat remote from common knowledge or interest. Nevertheless in this canvas the tale is sufficiently told, and already the real Alma Tadema is making himself felt in the greater richness of the colouring and in the skilful disposition of the figures. Quite especially free and energetic is the figure of the eldest boy throwing his axe at the mark, and that of his teacher looking on intently to see how his charge conducts himself during this public exposition of his prowess. This work, which is now the property of the King of the Belgians, was bought by the Antwerp Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts for the paltry sum of one thousand six hundred francs, an amount which at the time seemed a large remuneration to its painter.
This picture was followed by yet others, all inspired by the Merovingian chronicles that had taken such a firm hold upon the artist's imagination. In each successive picture the scheme of colour grew fuller and warmer, the dull manner of the master van Leys was more and more abandoned, the real Alma Tadema made himself more and more felt. His own individuality, his own methods of conception became manifest. This is especially the case in a picture called Gonthram Bose, another of the Merovingian series. We here see. Alma Tadema already applying his peculiar capacity of filling in every inch of the canvas, thus often giving to the tiniest space a sense of vastness, of distance, of immensity, that renders his smallest works such marvellous gems of concentrated beauty. Of course it took time to learn to do this without arousing a sense of overcrowding, a fault that occurs even in one or two of his later works, but more and more as he advanced this danger was eliminated and the capabilities hidden in this artifice became ever more manifest. The little figures with which he peopled his pictures also steadily advanced in correctness of movement and bore about them a local physiognomy that revived an entire historical epoch in a few square inches of canvas. The whole Merovingian period seemed incarnated in these works.
This same capacity of resuscitating a remote historical time was yet more pleasantly revealed when Alma Tadema at last turned from painting these gorgeous but bloodthirsty barbarians, and applied himself instead to the mysterious land of Egypt, the source of all culture and all knowledge, the land he has never seen, but which he has apprehended so wonderfully with the eye of his brain. The German Egyptologist and novelist, George Ebers, a friend of Alma Tadema's, to whom he dedicated one of his historical tales, once asked him what it was that had turned him from his Franks towards the land of Isis. Alma Tadema replied, "Where else should I have begun as soon as I became acquainted with the life of the ancients ? The first thing a child learns of ancient history is about the Court of Pharaoh, and if we go back to the source of art and science must we not return to Egypt ?"
This migration to the Nile closed what may be termed Alma Tadema's first artistic period, which embraces the ten years that lie between 1852 and 1862. In 1863 he exhibited his Egyptians Three Thousand Years Ago. Here, though archaeological knowledge was manifest, Tadema did not sacrifice his picture to a pedantic display of learning. On the contrary, it rather seemed his object to show that these dead and gone old Egyptians, whom we are too inclined to think of as the stiff, lifeless figures that greet us from the temples and stone carvings of their native land, were men and women like to our-selves. A work such as this exhibited great study, more perhaps than that demanded by his Merovingians. But from the outset it was evident that Alma Tadema would not covenant with prevailing fashions in art in order to buy public favour at a cheap price. He would take up no task which did not commend itself to his aesthetic faith, to his individual inclination, to the particular preferences of his taste. Never, even at the outset of his career, when financial success had not yet come, did Alma Tadema convert his function of artist into an easy or lucrative profession.
In The Mummy, The Widow, The Egyptian at his Doorway, Tadema for the first time applies the methods of genre painting to the treatment of antique themes. This novel manner of dealing with archaeology, which is really of his creation, has found a large school of imitators, none of whom, however, approach the master either for spontaneity of conception or skill of execution. This leaning towards genre and its application to subjects that had hitherto not invited treatment in this manner, may probably be traced to Tadema's Dutch origin, seeing that the Dutch were past masters in this form of composition, which by them was chiefly used to illustrate trivial moments of their immediate environment.
The most remarkable of these works is the Death of the First--born ; indeed, Tadema ranks it as his best picture, and has never yet accepted any offer for its purchase. It hangs permanently in his studio, and is looked upon by his family as a priceless possession. The date of this work is 1873, when the artist had already begun to turn his attention to those Greco-Roman themes with which his fame has since been so closely associated. As the picture is not familiar to the world from reproductions, we will describe it at length.
In this picture of the last, worst plague of Egypt, we find pathos, despair, and that silent grief which " whispers to the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break."
We enter a great Egyptian temple where darkness and gloom, oppressive in their in-tensity, are only relieved by the gleam of moonlight seen through a distant doorway, and by a single lamp which makes the surrounding shadows more deep. In the foreground is a pillar with hieroglyphics inscribed upon it, its capital lost in the darkness gives a strange sense of awe, but the pervading influence, the power of the scene, is the apprehension of death which seems to rest over the mighty columns, which fills the great temple, which bows to the earth Pharaoh himself, for it is his first-born who lies dead before him. Priests and musicians are gathered round lamps standing on the floor. The priests are chanting their prayers, and the musicians are touching strange-looking instruments. The entire effect is gloomy and awe-inspiring in the extreme. The colouring is sombre with its inimitable use of greens and browns. The surroundings fitly prepare us for the central group of four persons who cluster round the figure of the desolate king. It is one of the extraordinary effects of this picture that the accessories strike the observer first, and in their mournful disposition prepare him for the chief interest, although both spiritually and actually, Pharaoh and his attendants hold the centre of the canvas. The king sits upon a low stool, and across his knees lies the slender body of his first-born. The dead face of the almost nude youth is indescribably sweet, and around his neck hangs limply a strangely-fashioned golden chain, probably bearing some amulet to shield the king's son from harm. The king, upon whose figure the light falls, wears his crown, the brilliant jewels of which seem to mock his helpless grief. He sits rigid, immovable, the strong, proud man will make no sign, but there is one feature which even his powerful will cannot control, his mouth trembles ever so slightly, so faintly that at first it is not distinguishable. But what grief it expresses, this faint indistinctness of outline ! This figure might be taken as the embodiment of grief, grief fixed and immutable, and like all true emotion, truly expressed, with not a hint of morbidness. The mother sits near, bowed to the earth in her sorrow. She, too, has striven to be strong, and even in this outburst of despair, shows self-restraint. At the other side of Pharaoh sits the physician whose powers have been useless in this combat. Outside the temple door two figures approach. They are Moses and Aaron coming to behold their work.
This is a truly marvellous picture, and it is not strange that Alma Tadema retains it in his own °hands. It is so true, so complex, so alive, that at every view, with every changing light it reveals new features, new aspects of sorrow, and yet with its profundity of sorrow it is not too tragic to live with. It is so true, so human, so beautiful, and so deep, that it does not repel. About Alma Tadema's art there is nothing false or strained ; he is always healthy, there is in his nature no strain of morbidness, and hence what-ever he paints appeals direct to the truest feelings, whether he paints the glad, sensuous world of the ancients, or the tragedies which befell them, there is never in his work the sickly introspection, the hyper-analysis of modern days. Just as in his Tarquinius and Emperor, Alma Tadema proved that he could express tragedy, so here he has shown conclusively that he can express pathos and that he is possessed of a deep imagination, which, unfortunately, he puts forth all too rarely. Had Alma Tadema created but this one superb work he would be among the greatest artists of our time.
This Death of the First-born is a true representation of Egyptian life, and, as if to prove how accurate are the artist's instincts, it is noteworthy that he placed at the feet of the dead a wreath of flowers which strikingly resembles a like gar-land, found ten years after the picture was painted, in the royal tombs of Deir el Bahari.
Meantime however, as we have said, he had begun to paint genre pictures of Greek and Roman life, and so numerous are these, so rapidly did he produce them, that it is impossible in our limited space to enumerate even the most important. We have chosen a few at random, taking care however to select from among the most noteworthy. One of his finest early Roman pictures is, beyond question, the Tarquinius Superbus, in which Tadema has shown what tragic power he could wield when he wished. But his general inclination leads him to let us see his men and women merely as they present their outward faces. He cares not to look beyond, to apprehend the informing intention, the psychic force of his creations.
This idiosyncrasy is based on the artist's character which is singularly direct, and to which introspection and analytic research is distasteful. Of quite a different character is the Pyrrhic Dance, a wonderful tour de force. We are made to feel that these Dorian fighters, executing a war-dance, are heavily armed, and that it is only their skill and agility which makes their choregraphic evolutions appear light under such heavily handicapped conditions. Indeed, as we know from history, but few could execute with grace and skill this " mimic warrior armour game " as Plato calls it, it might so easily become ridiculous and it is not the least of Tadema's merits in this canvas that he has treated it without the least touch of exaggeration, and with a gravity and dignity that are truly admirable.
The Vintage, painted just before Tadema's removal to England, is in some respects one of his most important and most characteristic works. It has been objected that Alma Tadema is essentially a painter of repose. To this picture as well as to the Pyrrhic Dance this criticism cannot be applied. The first thing that strikes us as we look at the work is the sense of motion and music which it imparts. Another of the objections sometimes made to Alma Tadema's work is that his men and women, but more especially his women, are not in accordance with usually recognized classical standards. His favourite types are rather of the heavy build that would be connected more readily with Holland than with Rome, though in some of the portrait busts of empresses preserved in the Vatican, and other sculpture galleries, we see frequent precedents for this preference, a preference that became more and more emphasized after the artist's removal to England. In learning, in technical excellence, in the remarkable finish of all the multitudinous details, the work is admirable. Here, too, he has not permitted the details to distract our attention from the main intention of the picture ; we think first and last of the procession and put the accessories, correct and wonderfully painted though they are, into their proper artistic place. Alma Tadema's pictures may at times seem to proclaim too loudly the equality of all visible things, and this equal attention to each object sometimes prevents the concentration of our attention upon the central point of interest. It is this peculiarity which led Ruskin to make his savage and most unfair onslaught upon the painter in his Academy Notes of 1875.
The Sculpture Gallery, a newer and more skilful version of a previous picture on the same theme, painted in 1864, furnished the tag upon which Ruskin hung his attack. This later Sculpture Gallery was the companion to the Picture Gallery exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, which was again a sort of extension of an earlier work called the Roman Amateur. In the atrium of a Roman house, a fat swarthy Roman, a man of little distinction, no doubt a nouveau riche of his period, exhibits to his visitors a silver statue. There is an impressive pomposity about his manner, as though he were dilating upon the statue's intrinsic metallic worth rather than upon its artistic merits, and his guests seem to be on the level of his own artistic tastes.
In the two versions of the Sculpture Gallery this idea is extended. In the first version the famous Lateran statue of Sophocles was introduced, and indeed forms the central point of interest. Around it are grouped three Romans, one woman and two men, evidently eagerly discussing its artistic merits. All Tadema's fine draughtsmanship, all his unique skill in the painting of lucent surfaces is here to the fore.
The second Sculpture Gallery was yet more elaborate in design and purpose. The work of art exhibited in this instance is placed within a back shop of the epoch, the front towards the streets being reserved for smaller and less important objects. A company of rich amateurs has evidently sauntered in to behold the latest acquisitions of the dealer. A colossal vase, poised upon a revolving pedestal, is especially claiming their attention. A slave slowly turns it round that they may view it in every light. We know him to be a slave by the crescent-shaped token he wears suspended from his neck. The effect of in-door and out-door illumination, and of reflected light from the shimmering surfaces of the objects in the shop is rendered with scientific accuracy and rare technical ability. Full of ingenious and most difficult light effects, too, is the Picture Gallery, in which we see a crowd of noble Roman dames and knights admiring the triptychs of the period wherewith the walls are hung and the easels loaded.
This theme, with considerable variants, had been treated once before by Tadema. Indeed, he is fond of repeating his initial idea in different shape. This time the work is called Antistius Labeon. It represents an amateur Roman painter, a contemporary of Vespasian, showing off his latest productions to the friends who have dropped into his studio. It seems, so Tadema tells us, that the gentleman painter, who was a Roman pro-consul, was rather looked down upon by his contemporaries for his amateur tastes. It was thought gentlemanly in those days to admire art but not to practise it, an idea that even in early Victorian days we find not quite extinct.
It was on these two fine works, The Sculpture Gallery and The Picture Gallery, that Alma Tadema's world-wide reputation was first based. A great continental dealer bought them, and as engravings as well as in the widely exhibited originals they became familiar to all lovers of the beautiful. From this time onward Alma Tadema could not paint fast enough to satisfy the demands made upon his brush ; but this success only in-creased the rigidity of the demands he made upon himself. The more successful Alma Tadema has been, the more conscientious has he become, a rare quality, and one that cannot be too highly praised or too much admired. His passionate love of colour, a passion that seems to have grown upon him as time passed, and as he abandoned more and more his earlier drier manner, found expression after his election as associate to the Royal Academy in a number of small but most perfect little canvases that often dealt with nothing in particular, and to which the artist was at times embarrassed to give names, or whose titles, when found, were not specially distinctive, but which each in their kind was a perfect gem of technique of radiant tints. And after all, why need a picture have a name, d tout prix? Whistler was not so wrong when he labelled some of his works as " Symphonies " and " Harmonies" of colour. Such titles would best describe many of Alma Tadema's smaller colour creations.
And now, his own line fully found, Tadema worked on steadily, without haste or pause. In a milieu far distant indeed from the scene of their creation, a London atmosphere, a London sky, he caused to live again for a while in effigy the men and maidens of Magna Graecia, of Rome, of Parthenope, and above all of Sicily, for Tadema's outdoor scenes are too southern in feeling and in tone even for the furthest shores of the Peninsula, and belong by rights to the Syren isle. Here alone are found the unclouded sapphire skies, the seas sun-bathed and innocent of angry waves, the luxuriant vegetation, the mad wealth of roses that seem to spring by magic from Tadema's brush, and are the outcome of his fervid imagination that can behold these things with his mental vision while fog and grim winter are raging outside. It is one of Tadema's rare and precious gifts that he can see his picture finished before he has put brush to canvas. It is this gift which makes it unnecessary for him to execute the usual amount of sketching, in-deed, Tadema may be said not to sketch at all ; it is this that lends to his hand his rare security, and this that helps towards his precision of execution. Everything is clearly, sharply outlined in his art. His canvases show no quiet, slumberous distances, no mysterious twilights of life or nature. All is evident, all is distinct, all sharply defined as in the meridional landscape that he loves, and all this is rendered with that accuracy, with those small touches of extreme sharpness, which recall the precise methods of his Dutch pictorial ancestors. These are merits, but they are merits that also contain hidden within their excellence the germs of what by some may be considered as defects. There is apt to be a lack of repose about a picture of Alma Tadema's, our eye is not necessarily led at once to the central purpose of the work, each action seems of equal importance, and is painted in the same scheme of values.
As an example of Alma Tadema's painstaking, and of how he lets no trouble or expense stand in the way of making his pictures just as perfect as possible, it may be mentioned that during the whole of the winter when he was at work on his Heliogabalus the artist sent twice a week for boxes of fresh roses from the Riviera. Thus each flower may be said to have been painted from a different model.
Only once in his life did Alma Tadema paint a life-size nude figure. This was the work called A Sculptor's Model. It was inspired by the Venus of the Esquiline, then but lately unearthed ; the painter's intention was to show, as far as possible, the conditions under which such a masterpiece might have been created. It was also painted as a model for his pupil John Collier, one of the very few pupils whom Alma Tadema has ever received into his studio.
It should be mentioned that Alma Tadema at times paints in water colours as well as in oils, a medium he manipulates most successfully, and which lends itself most admirably to his limpid effects of sea and sky. He has also of late years taken to portrait painting. His wonderfully careful technique has here full play, and the perfection of finish fills us with admiration. But, despite their merits, it is hard to think of these portraits as Alma Tadema's ; with his name, whether we will or no, we are forced to associate blue skies, placid seas, spring flowers, youths and maidens in the heyday of life, and a sense of old-world happiness and distance from our less beautiful modern existence and surroundings.