Alma Tadema - Our Illustrations
( Originally Published 1902 )
AMONGST the many famous and popular pictures by Alma Tadema it is a little difficult to know which to select, and our object has been to make a representative collection, while avoiding those which are already familiar to all through the windows of the print shops. A work that shows him in one of his most tragic moments, a mood he does not often exhibit, for this master of sunny nature prefers to paint sunny themes, is the Ave Caesar! Io Saturnalia! The story of Caligula's tragic ending and the election of Claudius as Emperor seems to have had a curious attraction for the artist. He painted the theme three times, though with considerable variants, first as the Claudius, then as The Roman Emperor, and finally, and in its finest version, as the Ave Caesar! lb Saturnalia !
The first of the series on the subject simply styled Claudius though full of life, solemnity and graphic force, was surpassed by its successors, into which the artist infused more of his wonderful genius for archeological indivination. This first Claudius belonged to a set of pictures ordered from Alma Tadema by the dealer M. Gambart.
The second, The Roman Emperor, was painted after his removal to London. In this new version Alma Tadema also adopted a scheme of colour that was absolutely new to him, to the consternation, it is said, of some of his clients, who saw in this departure an alarming tendency towards pre-Raphaelitism. According to them it was distinctly unfair to the public for this artist to change his style. Where were the white marbles, the dresses of pale, soft tints to which they were accustomed in his can-vases ? Here he had boldly introduced a girl of the Roman people with hair of pure copper tints, and even the corpse was clad in a dress of brilliant blue and vivid purple, while the purity of the marble pavement was stained not only with the blood of the slain, but was also a confusion of restless coloured mosaics that distracted the eye from the picture's main purpose. Criticism waxed hot around this canvas which seemed to threaten a revolution in the artist's methods.
But it was only a passing phase and proved of no real import. Alma Tadema's pictures continued as before to be distinguished by a certain calm and majestic solemnity, such as suits best the Roman people whom by choice he represented. Still this third and finest version of the Claudius story can scarcely be classed among his calmer works. It is dramatic and full of movement. For brilliant colouring, for vigorous drawing, for its admirable archeological verity this picture is distinguished even among Alma Tadema's many distinguished works. Note too that it is painted in proportions so small as would hardly suffice a latter-day Italian artist for the depicting of a cauliflower. But Alma Tadema, far from thinking that a canvas must be large in proportion to the importance of his subject, is of the opinion that minute dimensions tend to excite the imagination and give to a work a more poetic and ideal character.
In this Ave Caesar! Io Saturnalia ! we look upon the man whose supposed imbecility saved him from the cruel fate to which Caligula subjected his relations, found by the soldiery in a corner of the palace where he had hid himself in his dread, a hiding place whence the Praetorians dragged him forth and proclaimed him their ruler. We see the elected Emperor, his face blanched with terror, holding for support to the curtain which has lately hid his trembling form from the pursuing soldiers and the populace. These ironically salute him as Imperator. Especially obsequious and excellent in rendering is the figure of the guard who has drawn aside the heavy drapery. A confused heap of corpses, all that is left of those who have been slain in defence of their murdered master, litter the marble pavement. Above them, laurel crowned, smile down in marble indifference the portrait busts of other Caesars now dead and gone to their account. In the far corner is huddled the populace mingled with the lance-bearing soldiers. They are sarcastically amused by Claudius's undignified election to the great Roman throne. Tragedy and comedy are most felicitously fused. Furthermore, wonderful though the details be, as they always are with Alma Tadema, in this case the accessories do not withdraw our attention for one moment from the human interest. Marbles and draperies, metals and flowers, though so perfectly rendered, take their natural place in the composition with-out detracting from the central interest.
And yet how exquisite in their archaeological and aesthetic perfection are these accessories. No wonder that in a picture from Alma Tadema's hand we look quite as much for the marbles, the hangings, the stuffs, the mosaics, the trees, and the flowers, as for the faces of his creations. It would almost seem at times as though he had painted these accessories with even more care than he bestowed upon his men and women, as if they interested him more. Indeed, where flowers are concerned Alma Tadema seems to give to them an inner life, a very physiognomy, his flowers are inimitable, both as suggestions and as realities. Even in the choice made it is quite remarkable how there is always a peculiar fitness to the picture's theme. Is there not, for example, to note but a few instances, a tragic impress about the poppy beds in his picture of Tarquinius Superbus? Have not his red and pink oleanders a bloom and blush as fitting as that on the faces of the young lovers they shade? ' Do not the cypresses and the stone pines in his Improvisatore adumbrate all the solemn mourn-fulness of a Roman garden ? Is there not a sensual note in the prodigality of roses that inundates his Heliogabalus? Are they not almost arch in his Love's Missile, in Shy, to name but a few of the many pictures in which trees and flowers figure as the very embodiment of the summer of life and nature.
Indeed, so exquisitely, so superbly painted are these flowers that in some of Alma Tadema's minor pictures they actually assume the upper hand, though of course unconsciously to the painter, and become the protagonists in the composition. There is one picture which he calls simply Oleanders, showing that he recognized himself how the flowers had impressed his imagination and gained precedence over the human beings with whom they were associated. Tadema's flowers are very poems, and had he painted nothing but these he would have been a great artist.
It was of course inevitable that when he chose Spring as his theme the composition should be rich in the delineation of such blossoms. In this picture all the perfumed profusion of a southern May is summed up within the space of one little canvas. A bevy of matrons, maidens and children precedes what was probably an ecclesiastical procession. They wend their way through the marble-paved streets of Imperial Rome to some temple shrine, therein to celebrate the rites of joy due to the newly awakened season. Flower-crowned are the fair human blossoms, flower-laden their garments, flower-filled the "offering-platters" they are about to lay on the altar of the god. The house-tops, those fair flat house-tops of Southern Italy, the spaces between the columns, the loggias and the porticoes, are crowded with eager spectators. These, too, are flower-wreathed and flower-laden. Joy-filled, spring-intoxicated, they rain down upon the gay procession beneath, posies and blossoms in glad and multi-coloured abundance. Marble and flowers, sunshine and blue skies, all life's gladness is here embodied by a painter's loving brush.
And how easy it all looks. We feel as if the painter had just thrown all this lovely profusion with rapid hand upon the canvas. But those who have the privilege of knowing Alma Tadema intimately and have watched the genesis of his pictures, watched them as they grow from under his brush, know how long and patiently he worked at this very canvas which gives an effect of spontaneity as though created d'un seul jet. Again and again did he scrape down his work, erasing recklessly the most exquisite little figures, the most perfectly modelled heads, be-cause they failed to satisfy the exigencies of the painter. Hence in this finished form the Spring represents the work of two or three pictures. And this is constantly the case in Alma Tadema's paintings. From each canvas has been erased some gem, under each picture is hidden some exquisite detail, painted over regardlessly by the artist; no matter how lovely it may be in itself, if it fails to fit into the ensemble it is always destroyed. Hence there is in his pictures no corner or space that is neglected or hastily blocked in. All is as perfect as he knows how to make it, and I have heard him say, not rarely, that a little glimpse of sky, some little peep into the open, has given him as much labour as the entire. picture.
For this excessive scrupulousness, this difficulty to be satisfied with his own work Alma Tadema has often been criticised by critics. Quite unjustly so, surely. Without this quality half of his power would be absent. It is due to this great attention to detail, this ceaseless searching after ever greater perfection, that Alma Tadema has made for himself a style of his own. Thus, for example, when he perceived that his colouring was too sombre, he reformed it by dint of diligence and care. He has never deceived himself regarding his own limitations for who has not limitations, even among the greatest ?—nor has he ever juggled with his aesthetic conscience.
An emancipation from the conventional codes that is almost Japanese is another feature of his work. Alma Tadema does not hesitate to show us some of his personages as standing half out-side the canvas, or cut through mid-body, or strangely placed in corners, or at the edge of the composition. Neither does he deem it needful that the principal action, as laid down by academic canons, should be placed in the very centre of the picture. It is this that gives the unusual note to many of his compositions, that was unusual in the days when they were still unknown, for since those days his work has been subjected to that imitation which the old proverb tells us is the sincerest form of flattery.
Sterner and more stately than Spring, indeed grand in its conception and execution, is An Audience at Agrippa's, in which a whole historic epoch is crystallized and rendered concrete. Here fidelity to archaeological truth has but enhanced the importance of the scene and helped to throw it into prominence ; nor are the details unduly emphasized to the detriment of the whole. In some respects this is one of Tadema's best conceived and most satisfactorily executed pictures. From an atrium on a high level, down a broad flight of steps, majestically descends Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the greatest and mightiest burgher of his day. He is clad in imperial red, and stands out marvellously against the white marble of the stairs. His face is set with a look of stern determination that speaks of unbending will. He is followed by a crowd of persons, some of whom are still bowing, though Agrippa has passed by. Upon the landing at the bottom of the stairs—a marvel of blue mosaics with a tiger skin lying across it—there is a table. On this stands a silver Mars and materials for writing, for the use of two scribes standing behind it. Note the character in these heads, the close-cropped hair that denotes their servile rank, the cringing salute, each trying to outbid the other in humility of manner. Just before these figures, at the foot of the stair-case, stands the world-famed Vatican statue of Augustus Imperator, the only man whose supremacy proud Agrippa would acknowledge, his device being, " To obey in masterly fashion, but obedience to one person only." Below this statue, where the staircase seems to turn at the landing, is another group. These three suitors, father, son, and daughter, are about to render a gift to accompany their petition, for they know it is well to conciliate even the wealthy with gifts. Behind the whole shimmers one of those wonderful effects of light and sky that Tadema rarely fails to introduce. Like his Dutch ancestors, he is never happy unless he can get some peep into the open through a window or a terrace. He welcomes any device by which is accomplished an outlet to the sky, producing thus an enhanced sense of space and atmosphere.
The greater part of this picture was painted in 1875, when the artist spent the winter in Rome, being driven out of England by the wreck of his lovely house in Regent's Park. I well remember those days in the Eternal City, and one little incident connected with this picture illustrates a delightful trait in Alma Tadema's character and his naïve enjoyment of his own work. He had finished the tiger skin which lies at the foot of the stairs, and in his delight over its successful achievement, he asked me in boyish glee, " Don't you see him wag his tail ?"
Even in the indoor picture called An Earthly Paradise (see frontispiece), the sense of atmosphere and space is not absent. The tale is here told with direct simplicity, a young mother adoring her firstborn as mothers have done since time began. The dress, the furniture, the surroundings are classic, the sentiment is of all times and all ages.
A Reading from Homer (see illustration, p. 16) reproduces some of Tadema's favourite devices, —a marble semicircular bench, a distant glimpse of tranquil sapphire seas, lustrous garments, and flower-wreathed characters. With eager enthusiasm the reader seated on his chair recites from a roll of papyrus that rests upon his knees. Of his four auditors only the woman, daffodil-wreathed, sits upon the marble exedra. One hand rests upon a tambourine, beside which is flung a bunch of flowers. The other holds that of a youth who sits upon the ground beside her. His other hand touches a lyre idly, but without sound, his entire interest is centred upon the reciter, whose words he follows with the eyes of his soul and of his intellect. Yet another youth lies prone upon the marble floor, his chin resting upon his hand. He, too, gazes in entranced wonder as he listens to the immortal verses of the Hellenic bard. On the left stands another figure, also flower-garlanded and wrapped in a toga. His face reveals that his, too, is a keen appreciation of the power of the words being recited. Rarely has even Tadema's magic brush painted a more luminous work, so suggestive of sunlight, so truly trans-figured and remote from life's grosser moments. Here, too, his flesh treatment is above his own high average. The modelling of the woman's figure and of the lover is especially fine.
It seems incredible, and yet it is true, that this composition, a large one for Alma Tadema, with its five figures and innumerable accessories, was entirely painted in the brief space of two months. Still, though completed in so short a time, the preliminary studies, including an abandoned picture, which was to have been called Plato, filled eight months of close application.
Not unlike in general treatment and in general purpose to the Reading from Homer is the picture simply entitled Sappho. In order to properly comprehend this work, however, some knowledge of the life story of the Greek poetess is required. Not a few visitors to the Royal Academy, where the picture was exhibited, imagined, with pardonable inaccuracy, that the seated figure playing the lute, and which certainly, at first sight, seems the most prominent, filled the title role. Instead, this is Alcaeus, the man who desired to gain the support of the mighty and gifted Sappho, for a political scheme of which he was the chief promoter. But besides being a political rhymer, Alcaeus was also Sappho's lover, and as he is here rendered, it is the lover who is most emphasized. Sappho herself sits behind a species of desk, on which rests the wreath, bound with ribands, that was the crown of poets. She is robed in pale green and gray, and in accordance with tradition, her raven black hair is filleted with violets. Beside her stands a young girl, her daughter, a sweetly graceful form, less lovely than the mother, but suggestive of maidenhood's enchantments. The poetess is seated on the lowest tier of the marble triple-rowed exedra, on which, at a respectful distance, are also disposed some of the pupils of her school. Dark, wide-branched fir trees spread their crowns above this bench. We are made to realize that their trunks are rooted far below, there where the deep blue sea, shimmering in the background, laps the earth that supports this scene. Through the branches is seen the sky, a sky of purest sapphire, a blue distinct from that of the tideless tranquil ocean, but no less glorious or intense. Nowhere perhaps better than here has Tadema reproduced the effects of summer seas and skies in their brilliant ardour, their palpitating delicacy of hue and texture. The very air that pervades the picture is hot and light, saturated and quivering with the quickening pulsation of a southern sun.
The intimate life of the Roman women has often attracted Alma Tadema's brush. We see this again and again in Well-protected Slumber, in Quiet Pets, in Departure, the scene suggested by Theocritus's fifteenth Idyll, in The Bath, in Apodyterium (or women's disrobing-room), and it is also accentuated in the Shrine of Venus, a scene in a Roman hairdresser's shop. This picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1889, where it attracted considerable attention, not only because of the perfection of its painting, the beauty of marbles and metals and textiles, the richness of its soft, full colour, its yellows and blues, but because of the masterly skill with which the human figures were painted (see illustration, p. 32).
Two beautiful young girls, one awaiting her turn to be coiffée, caressing the masses of her thick, dark, loosened hair, the other already dressed, lingering to gossip with her friend, are reclining on a marble bench. These are so entirely absorbed in their own beauty that they pay but slight attention to the entrance of a tall, simply attired matron, who, glancing inquiringly in their direction, passes on to an inner apartment. In sweeping by she has carelessly plucked one from a mass of blossoms heaped upon a coloured marble table in the outer shop, and her hand, holding the flower, falls heavily beside the warm white folds of her gown. At the open lunette shop window, exposing to view coils and twists of hair, some attendants are distributing vases and lotions to the customers, whose heads appear above the marble balustrade, on which stands a deep blue vase, encrusted with exquisite enamel figures. The figure of the attendant who is reaching down an alabaster pot is especially graceful and free in poise.
Although the marble screen, surmounted by fluted columns, and the lunette window are sliced off at the top, the picture gives no impression of confinement. This sense of space is increased by the rim of a marble basin in the immediate foreground, the reclining figures which lower the eye level, and the skilful introduction through the open window, above the heads of the passers-by, of the entrance columns and intricate façade of an adjoining building. The triangle of blue sky and the blue glass vase standing out against the distant columns of the building across the square form one of Alma Tadema's many happy combinations.
In some respects the most important picture painted by Alma Tadema of late years is called The Coliseum, which excited wondering praise for its masterly handling, its colour scheme, its archaeological knowledge, when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1896. Attached to the title in the catalogue was this motto from Lord Byron's " Don Juan " that gave the keynote to that which the artist desired to express :
"And here the buzz of eager nations ran
Dominating the whole picture, and occupying more than half of its canvas, is the huge Flavian Amphitheatre colloquially known throughout the whole world as the Coliseum. Even in the title therefore in this case the inanimate object takes the first place, relegating to a secondary rank the human interest. Very wonderfully does the artist convey to our eyes a sense of the gigantic bulk and height of the huge Amphi-theatre, and with accurate archaeological know-ledge has he reconstructed its form upon his canvas. Here are its two tiers of arcades, whose arches, we learn from the evidence of tradition, inscriptions and ancient coins, were filled, as in the painting, with groups of colossal white marble statues. Above these arcades rose a series of pilasters, and above these again, supported on the topmost parapet, were stout poles that held the velarium or canvas awning which sheltered from the sun or rain the thousands of spectators gathered to witness the bloody deeds which took place in the arena below. These supporting poles stand out distinct against the glowing sky, a sky always introduced if possible by Alma Tadema. The hour chosen is late afternoon, when from out the Amphitheatre pour the thou-sands who have lately thronged the tiers upon tiers of seats that surrounded the arena, high functionaries and proletariat, tender-born ladies and women of the market-place, all equally eager to witness the orgies of blood that were here enacted. Outside the broad walk that encircled the Amphitheatre stood the famous Baths of Titus, second only in magnificence to the Coliseum itself. Alma Tadema has imagined for it a balcony of white marble, raised high above the road. On its parapet stand tall wide-mouthed sculptured vases, connected together with thick festoons of yellow daffodils proving that the season of the year is Alma Tadema's favourite one of early spring. A nude bronze statue of a nymph wreathing her tresses, in accordance with the usages of the Baths, crowns the parapet of the balcony. Around her feet too, are twined the wreaths of yellow flowers that give such a sunny note to the whole scheme of colour. Two ladies and a child have taken up their station on this festively decorated parapet, evidently come thither to witness some spectacle of quite unusual importance that has called to the arena not only the populace, but even the Consul himself, who, preceded by his clients, and attended by his lictors, is seen issuing from the main exit of the Coliseum, which was almost in front of the Baths. To keep the way clear for the grandees, some guards are roughly pushing back the dense crowd that is packed on either side of the roadway. Yet another crowd is issuing from the side door of the Coliseum. This mob is chiefly composed of plebs, though among them are mingled palanquin bearers plying for hire. Yet further off again is seen the Arch of Constantine and the famous goal known as the Meta Sudans.
It is not quite evident what it is that chiefly interests these lady spectators. We are told that the dark-haired and elder of the two is the little girl's mother. For safety's sake she plucks at the child's gown for fear the little one in her excitement should fall over the low parapet. The younger lady is more eager in her inter-est. She, who is supposed to be the child's governess, has evidently recognized some one, friend of lover, in the crowd immediately below to whom the child is excitedly pointing. The " Athenaeum," when describing this picture on its first exhibition, wrote concerning it :
"It would be difficult to do justice to the breadth, brilliance and homogeneity (in spite of its innumerable details) of this splendid picture. The painting of the minutest ornaments, the folds of the ladies' garments, even the huge festoons we have referred to, and the delicate sculptor's work of the vases and mouldings on the balcony are equally noteworthy. Even more to be admired are the faces, of which that of the maiden in blue is undoubtedly the sweetest and freshest of all Mr. Alma Tadema's imaginings. Her companion (the more stately matron) who wears a diadem of silver in her black hair, illustrates a pure Greek type of which the painter has given us several examples, but none so fine as this one, which is very skilfully relieved against the peacock fan of gorgeous colours which she holds in her hand. It is easy to imagine that in her noble spirit some thought of the victims of the Amphitheatre arose, which explains the painter's intention in choosing the motto of the Coliseum."
The picture is certainly in every respect worthy of Alma Tadema's high reputation and is a perfect example of his style, a brilliant work, true and complete in every touch.