A group of women look down to the sea from a stone parapet. The vivid blue of the sea and the clear bright light suggest a warm location – perhaps the Amalfi Coast, rather than the promenade in an English or Dutch sea-side resort. Their costume, and perhaps the ship glimpsed arriving below, suggest the world of ancient Rome, as does the marble parapet on which they lean; but beyond the antiquity suggested by the statuary and their costumes, this elegant group could be anywhere in time or space. This scene, Coign of Vantage (1895) is one version of a recurring image in the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), seen in several other pictures also displayed in the current exhibition at London’s Leighton House Museum, ‘Alma-Tadema: at home in antiquity’; elegantly dressed figures arranged on stone seating, with the sea in the distance. This recurrent image might be linked to a significant turning point in Alma-Tadema’s life, his 1863 honeymoon, which took him and his first wife Pauline through Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, and appears to have changed the course of his career.
In 1863 Alma-Tadema was emerging as a talented history painter with a taste in scenes from the early mediaeval period, often depicting the encounters of powerful royal women with writers or churchmen (for example in Queen Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Bishop Praetextatus, 1864). But his experience of Pompeii and the ruins and landscapes of the Italian coast redirected him towards classical antiquity, and it was his incorporation of classical scenes and domestic life into the genre of history painting that became the hallmark of his work. Monuments from Pompeii can clearly be seen in his work: An Exedra (1871) incorporates seating and a tholos from Pompeii’s Via dei Sepolcri, repositioned to permit a distant glimpse of the sea. This exedra, or a version of it, recurs in many paintings in the show, often with an inscription carved into it. Other scenes use adaptations of it, such as the seats marked with names as if they were cathedral choir stalls in 1881’s Sappho and Alcaeus, sadly not in this show, or 1903’s Silver Favourites, in which the exedra is part of a sea-side parapet, and surrounds a pond containing the fish of the title, being fed by one of the exquisitely dressed women as her companions look on languidly (baths and fountains are another Alma-Tadema visual trope).
History painting had become a significant genre in nineteenth-century art. Perhaps in step with developments in historiography and the rise of ‘scientific history’, artists sought to represent scenes from history and literature through accurate depiction of the appropriate material culture. This involved both reproduction and recreation. Alma-Tadema’s constructed cityscapes and interiors evoke the earlier genre of the capriccio, in which disparate buildings and works of art are included in the same scene, enabling the knowing viewer to recognise the artists’ distortion. Some of his work comments on the process of gathering evidence – he paints collectors and art lovers amid their treasures, as in his A Roman Lover of Art (1868). The technical proficiency in handling materials, detail and perspective which Alma-Tadema deploys on architectural detail, sculpture, and mosaic is reminiscent of the earlier Dutch tradition of depicting house and church interiors. Indeed, many of his classical scenes are domestic interiors evoking mood rather than a historical event, showing women making offerings, playing with pets, or admiring flowers, rather than illustrative history paintings such as Hadrian Visiting a Romano-British Pottery (1884). A Hearty Welcome (1878), for example, shows a woman greeting a girl in a garden; the models are Alma-Tadema’s second wife Laura Theresa, and his daughter Anna. Alma-Tadema’s focus on domesticity means that his commitment to historical accuracy may be better realised in the individual material objects, than it is in the family groups he so often depicts. In moving the emphasis of the genre painting from the historical recreation of famous scenes and episodes to the more timeless world of the everyday interior, he anticipates the interests of social historians.
There may be a tension between Alma-Tadema’s depictions of domesticity and what the exhibition labels describe as the ‘contemporary fascination with decadence in the ancient world’ seen in some of his work, and that of his contemporaries. Some of Alma-Tadema’s works in the exhibition, especially his larger-scale later works, suggest the complication of the gaze, and the complicity of the paintings’ subjects in staging the scenes depicted and their awareness of events within them – the emperor watching from the dais as his guests are covered in falling petals, and the woman staring out to the viewer in The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The domestic Alma-Tadema on display here avoids the explicit eroticism of near contemporaries such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Gérôme’s eroticised views of antiquity share the tenor of his orientalist paintings in depicting women as the object of the male gaze, most clearly in Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), in which the famous courtesan displays her exquisite body to the ancient court and to the modern viewer. Decorative panels from Alma-Tadema’s Roman-themed London home and studio, contributed by many artists, are more suggestive of Gérôme’s approach. Both Andromeda (Frank Dicksee, 1891) and A Christian Martyr (Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888) depict women naked and constrained, while Lord Leighton’s Bath of Psyche (1887) offers a more typical opportunity for artistic voyeurism. Alma-Tadema himself painted several bath-house scenes, such as In the Tepidarium (1881) and the late A Favourite Custom (1909), but while the languid women of Alma-Tadema’s later works offer further evidence that he participated in the eroticisation of antiquity, his domesticised version of the ancient material world offers a contrasting vision.
As one of the final displays of this exhibition demonstrates, Alma-Tadema’s vision of the Roman world has influenced many cinematic depictions of the past, and what we may recognise as a Roman setting is actually an Alma-Tadema creation. Setting his pictures alongside clips from films from The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) – itself a version of a Victorian historical novel, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – to Gladiator (2000), the show demonstrates that Alma-Tadema’s interiors have influenced set-designers’ three-dimensional attempts to recreate Roman interiors, notably in the emphasis on domestic bathing. In his focus on the family and the household, Alma-Tadema created a distinctive vision of the ancient world, perhaps anticipating later interest from both story-tellers and historians in personal lives, and in social and cultural rather than political history.