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Lawrence Alma-Tadema Paperback – 1 Sep 2003
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"This book, like the paintings themselves, is a joy of immaculate and comprehensive research with a lavish attention to detail."―Arts Opinion
"In this original and penetrating study, Rosemary Barrow presents a portrait of an exuberant personality who carved out a brilliant career at the heart of London's artistic and cultural elite."―The Argus
"A penetrating study of one of the finest and most distinctive Victorian painters."―(Sotheby's Bookshop Brochure)
"Scholarly and informative book..."―Times Literary Supplement
"A fresh and sympathetic appraisal of this artist."―Daily Telegraph
"This fascinating book, well-illustrated with fine colour reproductions will help to reasses his [Lawrence Alma-Tadema's] reputation in the 21st century."―Yorkshire Gazette
"Barrow's anecdotal, academic and absorbing study of this Dutch-born Victorian painter breathes life into a man famous for his depictions of the imagined excesses, decadence and languid passion of the Roman Empire."―Antiques
About the Author
Rosemary J Barrow is a Lecturer in the School of Humanities, King's College, London, and has lectured and published widely on Alma-Tadema.
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Straightaway, it needs to be said that the book lives up to the usual high standards of Phaidon publishers. Although Alma-Tadema painted mostly on relatively small canvases, one can only wish that many of the paintings in this book were reproduced in greater size. (Alas, so many of them are in private collections.) As well as his paintings, the book includes examples of his work as an interior decorator and architect. A whole chapter is also devoted to his work as a stage designer in the theatre, including costumes as well as sets for historical productions.
Rosemary Barrow's work comprises an introduction and twelve chapters. In the introduction she notes how, "Personality and painting aside, his career itself constitutes a remarkable achievement: that a boy from Friesland should grow up to become one of the most admired and successful artists in Victorian Britain." Before reading this book, in my own mind I had grouped Alma-Tadema with the likes of Burne-Jones, Leighton, Waterhouse; a lush synthesis of the early work of the Pre-Raphaelites with strong strands of the Aesthetic movement. We see blue skies and white marble, and Barrow describes much of his late work as "one eternal sunny afternoon".
It was a surprise, therefore, to be told by Barrow that three-quarters of Alma-Tadema's output has the classical world as its subject: "With their play of light, soft colour-harmonies, gorgeous textures and settings of marbled interiors and sunny Mediterranean sea scapes, it is not surprising that these works exercise a lasting sensuous appeal. But more than this, ... Alma-Tadema presents a plausible visualisation of antiquity and an intriguing construction of ancient political and social life." Barrow insists, therefore, that Alma-Tadema is not just about Victorians dressed up in togas. Rather, she tells us her book "is a reassessment and a revaluation of the paintings themselves."
The twelve chapters are arranged in three parts: his early career, his establishment as a successful artist, and final honours. She follows the painter's journey both geographically - his visit to the site of Pompeii on his honeymoon is described as an epiphany - and chronologically. Alma-Tadema began his professional career in his native Holland, painting the world of Merovingian Gaul, before `progressing' to Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Barrow is quite insistent on arguing Alma-Tadema's devotion towards historical verisimilitude, and the examples given are quite sophisticated and convincing, both in their style and content. Indeed, Barrow's book includes reproductions of the painter's own photographs of archaeological finds on which he would base the form of various objects inhabiting his chosen scenes, scenes famous and scenes of the everyday.
For example, when Alma-Tadema painted his `Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to this Friends', the artist has skilfully shown the frieze in unexpectedly bright colours under subdued lighting and not as plain marble. Barrow writes, "Through the use of archaeological and literary references, Alma-Tadema charges the educated viewer to rethink traditional constructions" of the ancient world. Barrow claims that in his lifetime, critiques of his work were based mostly on his archaeological accuracy and his aesthetic effect, but not on the potentially subversive effect (mainly sexual) of the content: "Only now is critical debate beginning to engage with the range of meanings in his canvases."
This is part of the re-assessment that is the purpose of her book. As well as subversion of contemporary mores, Barrow also sees some irony, especially when Alma-Tadema included himself in a scene. She takes John Singer Sargent's remark - that Alma-Tadema's work was clever but not art - as perceptive: "While most critics concentrated on describing and not analysing his works, Sargent acknowledges, if negatively, their intellectual content." Sargent's work appealed to the senses; Alma-Tadema's to both the senses and the intellect.
After his death, Roger Fry compared Alma-Tadema's work to `highly-scented soap', and one can understand the sense of frustration, for there are only so many beautiful Roman-coutured and -coiffured women lounging on marble benches longing forlornly by the sea that one can take. Alma-Tadema recognised that he had found his groove and that he must continue to work in it, "but at the same time I must not merely repeat myself."
Barrow concludes that, "The defining feature of Alma-Tadema's work is arguably challenging subversions beneath exquisite surfaces." Note the word `arguably', but she also concedes that if this were so, then contemporaries as learned as Alma-Tadema were either ignorant or dumbly complicit in these supposed subversions. Whatever, it's time that Lawrence Alma-Tadema had his own show so that we can make our own judgement. In the meantime, Barrow's excellent book provides us with much food for thought.
Endnotes, a bibliography, and two indices bring up the book's rear.
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