Saturday, May 09, 2009

My favorite Bible artists #9

Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1836-1912
I recently came across some amazing Bible paintings by Dutch born Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Although Alma-Tedema is best known for recreating historical scenes from ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, he also painted a small number of pictures depicting scenes from the Bible like the one above titled 'The Finding of Moses'. Alma-Tadema is famous for his almost photographic portrayal of ancient artifacts and architecture. The accuracy and detail contained in his pictures is breathtaking! A good example is Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends.

So detailed are Alma-Tadema's pictures that he is credited in the book 'Great Painters and their Famous Bible Pictures' for having "peopled the past, rebuilt its towns, refurnished its houses and rekindled the flame upon the sacrificial alters".
It was during his first visit to Italy in 1863 that his mission in life became clear to him. He began his painstaking study "to bring antiquity back to life in so far as it lay in the power of his art". Muther said of him "There was no monument of brass or marble, no wall painting, no pictured vase or mosaic, no sample of ancient arts, of pottery, stone-cutting, or work in gold, that he did not study".

When painting scenes in Egypt he made many trips to the British Museum in London where he made sketches of the ancient artifacts on display. The picture above 'The Finding of Moses" took Alma-Tadema two years to paint and includes a number of archaeologically precise objects and inscriptions. His infatuation with detail brought some criticism though. Some critics said that his pictures "lacked sentiment" or "possessed no heart-interest". Others said that his work was becoming too encyclopedic.
Alma-Tadema's passion for antiquities did not confine itself to his paintings. His house in London was also filled with Egyptian decorations, pillars, mosaic floors, tiger skins and oriental carpets. His garden also was in the classical Roman style filled with marble benches and basins and statues of bronze and stone.

Alma-Tadems's paintings have served to inspire film makers of both the past and present. Cecil B. DeMille when filming The Ten Commandments had a set of Alma-Tadema's prints for the set designers to study. More recently the set designers of the Oscar-winning film 'Gladiator' took their inspiration from the very same pictures.
Alma-Tadema was knighted and received an Order of Merit, and, although his paintings were publicly acclaimed during his lifetime, following his death in 1912, they fell out of favor. During this time some of his paintings could have been purchased for as little as £20. Things changed though in the late 1960s when there was a revival of interest in Victorian paintings.
When the picture above 'The Finding of Moses' was auctioned at Christies in New York in May 1995, it sold for £1.75 million!

Links to some of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Bible Art:
Joseph - Overseer of the Pharoah's Granaries
The Death of the First Born
An Audience at Agrippa's
More pictures of historical interest to the Bible Artist:
Sculptors in Ancient Rome
Egyptian Chess Players
Egyptian Juggler

More about Lawrence Alma-Tadema here.


Nathan P. Daniel said...

I love Alma-Tadema’s work. I find it interesting how the best artists all took trips to Italy for inspiration. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to use the Internet to get some inspiration like that without even leaving home.

This painting is beautiful and detailed, though I do kind of wonder about his depiction of the slave girl with the bright red hair. After seeing a much higher resolution detail of the painting (which I can link to if you want), I can see that all those people across the river appear to be Israelite slaves. Nice touch.

I also like how the one girl to the far left is following the princess playing music for her as they travel. Seems like the ancient origins of the iPod to me.

Paul Green said...

Having viewed some original artwork by Alma-Tadema at Manchester City Art Gallery I can say I was amazed by their size. This artist is on a different planet as far as draughtmanship is concerned. I cannot imagine ever learning how to paint on such large canvases with such fine detail. His lighting is sublime.

To be critical for a moment I find his work quite Victorian. How does an artist paint scenes of Ancient Egypt and Rome and remain Victorian? In the poses of his subjects. They look theatrical. The women appear idealized in a Pre-Raphaelite manner.

But Alma-Tadema's skill as an artist is astounding.

Bible artist said...

Yes we are very fortunate in this day and age to have the internet. Whereas Alma-Tadema had to leave home to visit the British Museum, I visited it last week without leaving home! I was able to get some good photographic reference via their website of actual Persian pottery and golden cups to draw on the table at the feast that Esther prepared for Haman.

Having said that, there's nothing quite like seeing these objects in the flesh. The week before last, on the bank holiday Monday, I visited Manchester Museum. They have an amazing collection of Egyptian antiquities on display. I had just been illustrating 'The Plague of Frogs' and had spent some time drawing the highly decorative Egyptian pillars. It was wonderful not only to see but to be able to touch these actual pillars!

Yes, the redhead does stand out. I noticed her too. We had a discussion about red hair in Bible times following Diana Shimon's interview.

I also went to the Manchester Art Gallery on that bank holiday Monday I mentioned above! I didn't see any Alma-Tadema paintings though. I didn't realize how big they were. I went hoping to see some of Holman Hunt's Bible Art, but it was all out on loan. I did get to see some of Leonardo DaVinci's drawings though.

We talked about the theatrical poses of the models in some of Harold Coppings pictures. It must be a victorian thing.

Mehreen said...

This is interesting one.

deboraw said...

Graham, I think the person with the red hair makes a couple of statements. One, how important as an illustrator it is to be as accurate as you can be. I look at that picture and now I would wonder does this painter know what he's painting or did he just want to add a nice touch? Two years ago I would probably have thought, Whoa! look at that, there were red haired folks in Egypt in pharaoh's day! (I've always been slightly gullible) very embarrassed face.

And two, it is important to (as an illustrator) question perceptions. I would say there probably were red haired folks in all sorts of places--as well as light skinned people as well. I remember your post on the Samaritans some time ago. I found that to be extremely interesting. Deboraw

Bible artist said...

The other point to remember also Deborah is that some painters had their favorite models which they liked to paint. It's possible that this was one of Alma-Tadema's favorite models. You would need to check out whether she appears in his other paintings.
Having said that, Because he was so careful getting all the other details correct, you would think that he would have at least put an Egyptian wig on her!

The Baroque painters of Italy, when painting biblical scenes, didn't seem to mind that the fashions and buildings in these paintings were distinctly Italian!

Paul Green said...

Alama-Tadema : It has been said, I know, that some of my Greeks and Romans are too English in their appearance. But, after all, there is not such a great difference between the ancients and the moderns as we are apt to suppose. This is the truth that I have always endeavoured to express in my pictures, that the old Romans were human flesh and blood, like ourselves, moved by much the same passions and emotions. (Cited in Lovett, 17)

He used family and friends for his models and also included himself at times. He was painting for a Victorian sensibility. They were his paying customers. He had to pay the bills. :))

Bible artist said...

Well done Paul!
There's nothing like getting the artist himself to answer the question. Thanks for that.

deboraw said...

And the point is well made that people are people. The Italian fashions and backdrops might be just a tad much, however. Alma-Tadema's paintings are exquisite non-the-less.

deboraw said...

Not to leave the wrong impression--I was referencing Bible Artist's comment about the Baroque painters, not Alma-Tadema and the Italian fashions. Deboraw

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