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Wildly popular and heartily condemned, Alma-Tadema was the Madonna of his day


Even in his own heyday, the late 19th century, when his paintings won highest prizes at international expositions and earned him a knighthood from Queen Victoria, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was by no means universally admired.

His scenes of everyday life in ancient Rome, furnished with archaeologically correct details and filled with people based on healthy English models, found eager British and American buyers, including William Walters in Baltimore. But Whistler, always ready with the killer quip, dismissed the work as "Five-o'clock-tea antiquity," and Sargent went if possible even further: "It is clever . . . but of course it's not art in any sense whatever."

On the occasion of the huge 1882 retrospective of 185 of his paintings and drawings, "He was praised for his brushwork, colour, detail and perspective, but condemned for saying more about the Romans than anyone would want to know," writes his biographer Vern Swanson.

In January 1913, shortly after he died, a letter to the London Times from artist Philip Burne-Jones called his work "as impressive an example as is likely to be found of what human industry combined with consummate draughtsmanship, impeccable technique, and an exquisite sense of the beauty of the material world is able to achieve."

Eleven days later the critic Roger Fry, writing in the Nation, commented that "all the people [of the Roman Empire as depicted by Alma-Tadema], all their furniture, clothes, even their splendid marble divans, were made of highly scented soap. . . . the case of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema is only an extreme instance of the commercial materialism of our civilization."

Such a wildly popular and heartily condemned figure in his own time must have the ability to excite some contemporary curiosity, which can be satisfied at the Walters Art Gallery right now. "Empires Restored, Elysium Revisited: The Art of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema" fortunately does not contain 185 works. It does contain four dozen, all drawn from American collections and covering his career from "Tete-a-Tete," a very early drawing of 1850 (he was born in 1836), to "Summer Offering" of 1911, the year before he died.

It contains such highlights as "Sappho and Alcaeus" (1881), whose sale to William Walters raised cries of anguish from those who did not want it to leave Britain; "A Reading from Homer" (1885), which sold for $30,000 in New York in 1903; and "The Women of Amphissa" (1887), a large and complex painting which won the Gold Medal of Honor at the Paris Exposition in 1889.

By then, Alma-Tadema at 54 was at the height of his career, especially admired in America and in his own, though non-native, England. Born in Holland, he was educated in Belgium, where he came under the influence of the archaeology professor Louis de Taeye, the Egyptologist Georg Ebers and the history painter Baron Hendrik Leys -- whose style, the show's catalog informs, "combined academic technique with romantic subjects."

For a time Alma-Tadema used subject matter taken from Merovingian France, but he subsequently turned to ancient Rome, inspired to a considerable extent by the excavations at Pompeii. Soon popular, he was less than 30 when Belgian dealer Ernest Gambart commissioned 24 paintings from him. He found a ready market in England, moved there in 1870 after the death of his first wife and remained for the rest of his life. He enjoyed tremendous success in the late 19th century, but by the time of his death in 1912 he had fallen from favor. It is only in recent years that interest in his work has revived.

Alma-Tadema created some history paintings, such as the Walters' "A Roman Emperor -- Claudius" (1871), which shows the assassination of Caligula with Claudius hiding in fear behind a curtain. But his more usual subject was genre, showing comfortable, middle-class scenes of people engaged in everyday activities -- only set in ancient Rome.

Titles such as "Entrance to a Roman Theater" (1866), "Preparations for the Festivities" (1866), "A Picture Gallery" (1873), "A Sculpture Garden" (1875) give a good idea of the sort of scene that was his specialty. Sometimes he took subjects from literature, such as "On the Road to the Temple of Ceres: A Spring Festival" (1879), based on Virgil's "Georgics I." And sometimes the work was blatantly cute, such as "My Sister Is Not In" (1879) or "Shy" (1883).

His customers, mainly the prosperous of England and America, could be drawn to his work for a number of reasons. They could see themselves in his wholesome-looking English models, but not in nasty late 19th century industrialized cities.

They could pride themselves on recognizing Alma-Tadema's faithful depiction of elements from antiquity, from specific works of art such as the "Laocoon" down to the smallest details -- a lamp, a dish.

They could take comfort in the obvious propriety of Alma-Tadema's scenes, and feel their standards affirmed by his depictions of the correct activities of nice people.

And they could admire, too, the work of a man who, from a technical standpoint, was an extremely gifted painter. His light, his color, his textures are all masterfully done. Whether it was marble (on which he especially prided himself), or flowers, or the elaborate patterns of mosaics and costumes, Alma-Tadema could do it all and make it all look right.

But none of the above makes him an artist of greatness, which he most definitely is not. His portraits, of which several are included here, are pleasant, and at least one, that of "Miss Alice Lewis" (1884), is surprisingly penetrating.

His other pictures, however, are richly executed sentimental twaddle, of no more relevance and less beauty than a piece of Sevres porcelain. For instead of beauty, what Alma-Tadema achieves is syrupy prettiness.

His subjects are sappy, his people are simpy. The men, when not bearded, often look like women, the women like men, and some figures are so androgynous you can't tell what they are. The poses and gestures they affect are too often the stuff of bad melodrama. In the Walters' "A Roman Emperor -- Claudius" the woman at the left puts her hand delicately to her chest and looks at the corpse of Caligula with polite curiosity, as if to say, "Why, my dear, whatever has happened to you?"

Alma-Tadema's problem is not simply that he is from another time, and therefore we can no longer understand him. If that were true, we wouldn't like Vermeer or Leonardo, either. No, Alma-Tadema's problem is that he never was anything more than a painter of fashionable emptiness, pleasing to people who mistook surface for substance. Sargent and Whistler were right.

But it must be said that the organizers of the exhibit, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, Mass., with the collaboration of the Walters, have provided a good look at the artist's work; that the Walters has given the show a handsome installation; and that the catalog -- with contributions by Jennifer Gordon Lovett of the Clark and William R. Johnston of the Walters -- is admirable. It treats Alma-Tadema with respect, but it's also balanced and doesn't hesitate to quote his detractors, cited at the beginning of this piece. If you're going to have an Alma-Tadema show, this is a good one to have.

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