“The Roses of Heliogabalus” - Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

8 January 1836, the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born in Dronrijp in the Netherlands.

“… 'it is impossible to reconcile the art of Alma-Tadema with that of Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso.” (John Collier)

 Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “The Roses of Heliogabalus” (1888)

Aristotle’s ideal of mimesis, imitation and representation of reality, combined with the sujets and lines of Neoclassicism and light and colours of Romanticism were the core of art as it was taught at the venerable European academies during the second half of the 19th century. Academic art, with its strict compliance to the technical and aesthetic rules as well as the choice of desirable motifs for a sculpture or a painting, was the educational background of many famous artists of the period all over Europe and, almost as a rule, a corset against which those who would become well received during the 20th and 21th century chafed at some point in their artistic careers and went their own ways. Academic art soon became despised as “eclecticism" and ”l'art pompier“, “Fireman Art” among the Bohème, the latter a pun on the Greco-Roman helmets the figures populating academistic paintings wore, looking quite like contemporary Parisian firefighters, with Pompéin ("from Pompeii"), and pompeux ("pompous") resonating as well. However, the mythological and historical topics executed by the masters of the art in pedantic realism, were immensely popular in their time and artists like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Hans Makart and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema had been held in high regard by the (paying) audience.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: "Unconscious Rivals" (1893)

Beautiful people, usually set against a Mediterranean sky or surprisingly colourful Roman antiquities, quoting handed down rumours of antique decadence with sultry salon eroticism became the trademark of the graduate of the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts who was actually supposed to become a lawyer. As one of the financially most successful painters of the Victorian era with an oeuvre that can be easily dismissed as pure kitsch, at least at a superficial observation, Alma-Tadema was indeed a master of realistic painting, even though he chose not to publicly denounce the grim social injustices of his life and times. And indeed, the green line between his academic paintings and the celebrated contemporary symbolism of Khnopff and Klimt is thin, although his paintings sold better.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: "The Tepidarium"(1881)

Ignored when Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism finally attracted the attention of larger audiences after the Victorian era was finally over, the works of Alma-Tadema still played a significant role in the imagery of Hollywood’s historical movies for decades and indeed, his scenery was so meticulously researched that it allegedly could have been rebuild  using Roman tools, up to being a major inspiration for the recent movie “Gladiator”, speaking volumes of the latter's authenticity. Nevertheless, the prejudices, probably not without justification a hundred years ago, make room for a more balanced picture since the 1990s and Alma-Tadema’s works reappear from the depths of the depots of various museums all over the world – for a re-evaluation of a master of realism who was among the best of his age in captivating tall tales on the canvas in a pleasing and often quite tongue-in-cheek manner.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: "Spring", 
depicting the festival of Cerealia in a Roman street