Art Of Alma Tadema
( Originally Published 1902 )
IT is fortunately not possible to define with real precision the position Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema occupies in art, since happily he is still living and working among us-and long may he so live to turn out yet other scores of sun-filled joyous canvases, speaking to a weary and hard-driven generation, of vanished and more placid times, when existence was less restless and more aesthetically conceived ! Nor, though he has had imitators by the dozen, is it as yet possible to determine the exact nature of the influence he has exerted upon the art of his age, for with rare exceptions these imitators have turned out frigid, lifeless works that bear the same relation to the master's style and manner as oleographs bear to original paintings. Neither is it quite possible to classify Alma Tadema's manner. A number of influences, partly extraneous, or accidental, partly the result of birth and atavism, have resulted in causing his art to be sui generis. If he must be classed at all, although a much younger man, he might be grouped with those artists who came to the fore on the continent soon after the upheaving epoch of 1848, men who endeavoured to revive the more intimate life of Greece and Rome upon their canvas, and who in France went by the name of neo-Greeks or Pompeists. This trend was a reaction from the older classical school that was headed by Jacques Louis David, whose productions were distinguished by a certain austere dignity of conception, by elaborate accuracy of form, but, on the other hand, were generally cold and unreal in sentiment, unpleasantly monotonous in colouring, and defective in their arrangement of light and shade.
It has been most felicitously remarked, that if David may be named the Corneille of the Roman Empire, Alma Tadema may be said to be its Sardou. He has made his ancients more living, he has resuscitated them with less visible effort ; he seems to have an instinctive comprehension of antiquity. His is not the Rome of Ingres, of Poussin, of grand public ceremonies, of battles, of the Forum and the rostrum, of actions that upheaved the world; he gives us instead the home life of this people, Rome such as we divine it to have been from Cicero's letters to Atticus, the life of the ancients as presented to us in the plays of Terence and Plautus. It is not mere historical painting that he aims at, indeed his art bears the same relation to history as does the anecdote to serious narrative, a lighter species which nevertheless often throws a brighter light upon the past than scores of learned tomes. And this result is largely achieved by his love of detail, which causes him to crowd his canvas with masses of those authentic bibelots which ancient and recent excavations and the aid of photography have brought within the reach of all.
The elder classical painters thought to render their work more truly classical by placing their protagonists in large empty monumental spaces, just as Corneille and Racine thought to give the true classical ring to their plays when they removed them from every-day emotions, and rolled out high-sounding and rhetorical phrases. Alma Tadema, instead, is convinced that these dead-and-gone folk were in all fundamental essentials like to ourselves, that they lived, loved, joked and chattered just as we do, and this conviction has found expression in his pictures that deal less and less with the graver, grander moments of their existence, and more with the petty intimate details of their home life. His pictures might almost be said to be a series of instantaneous reproductions of the life of the Roman patricians. The plebs have no interest for him, they rarely figure in his canvases, and when they do their figures are entirely subordinate. The Roman of Alma Tadema's pictures abides in a world of idle luxury, in which nothing matters much unless it ministers to sensuous enjoyment. It is the outward seeming of life and objects that attracts him, their inner deeper meaning matters to him as little as their subject. The life aim of his men and women seems to be to exist happily and placidly, untroubled by material cares or disturbing emotions.
In his method of composing his pictures Alma Tadema's manner is also the absolute antithesis of what is commonly regarded as the classic method. So far is he from putting his principal personages well into the middle of his canvas, from following a pyramidal arrangement, that in his effort to be natural and unconventional, he even at times commits extravagances in order to escape from the beaten path, as, for example, in his portrait of Dr. Epps, in which there are shown one head and a bust, no arms, but three hands, the third being that of the unseen patient whose pulse the physician is supposed to feel. This is an extreme instance, but a tendency to dismember his figures, to show us only half a figure, a detached head, a hand without a body, a foot without a visible leg, occurs every now and again, and not certainly to the detriment of a realistic effect, but most certainly to the detriment of composition as classically understood. This tendency, no doubt, results from his love of Japanese art, an art that has had a visible influence upon his methods of disposing his composition. Indeed, it might almost be said that Alma Tadema does not compose his pictures at all. He certainly does not do so according to the ordinary acceptance of the term in art, he rather disposes his personages about his canvas, apparently at hazard, much as they might group themselves in real life. But under this seeming negligence, is hidden great care, immense painstaking, a striving to give to his pictures their maximum of expressive force, for in Alma Tadema's work, everything as well as every person, has its suggestive purpose. As M. de la Sizeranne has well said, few painters have less of that element which in the jargon of the studio is known as poids mort. But this very merit causes his pictures to lack concentration. There is no point on which our eye fixes at once as the central, most important, and the meaning of the whole may often be hidden in some accessory that the ordinary observer is apt to overlook. Thus, for example, in one of his Claudius series is seen, poised on a cippus, a head of Augustus, dominating as it were the whole bloody, rowdy, undignified scene. How many who see the work have remarked that the bust is turned toward a picture that represents a naval engagement, and that underneath this picture is written the single word " Actium," suggestive of a vast antithesis. Subtle little touches such as these often render Alma Tadema's more important works a puzzle to those unversed in classic lore, and oblige us to class him, if classed he must be, among the erudite artists whose roots are planted in the soil of literature. Yet, surely, if there exists a domain where erudition should take a secondary place it is that of art, which shares with poetry the high privilege of soaring so high as to have the right to disdain the mere minutiae of history, the petty details of life.
Happily, Alma Tadema is saved from being a cold, unattractive antiquarian painter by his rare keen sense of beauty, and here again we come in contact with the difficulty of ranging him as we might range his pseudo-classic brethren. The spectator who misses the allusions, the meaning of his subject-pictures, nevertheless finds matter for full and intense enjoyment as he con-templates the lovely fabrics, the cool half-shades, the clear sunlight, the exquisite flowers, the heat-saturated sea and sky, the marbles and the bric-à-brac that appear on almost every canvas, and are painted with a skill, a consummate science that captivates the connoisseur, and with a reality that delights the uninstructed crowd.
Briefly, Alma Tadema's double nationality, his Dutch birth, his long English residence, coupled with his classic tastes, his admiration for the Japanese, have contributed to render his art a curious complex of conflicting tendencies, tendencies that in themselves are again welded into a harmonious whole by the idiosyncrasy of the man. We seem to feel, even through the medium of his pictures, his kind-heartedness, his quick appreciation of all that is good and beautiful, his dislike of mystery, of vain searchings in dark mental places, his love of sunshine, moral and real. Others might paint his portraits as well, but none can paint those exquisite south-ern idylls of which such numbers have issued from his brush and brain. He has been called the painter of repose. I should rather be inclined to style him the painter of gladness, of the joy of life. The artistic world has certainly been rendered the sunnier by his works.