Art Markets: British painter’s idealized visions of ancient Rome

At the zenith of the British Empire in the 19th century, many Englishmen compared the realm of Queen Victoria to a predecessor on the imperial stage, the Roman Empire. Everyone knew that as Rome rose, so did it fall, and many of Victoria’s subjects were anxious that the “barbarians” of their own time would gain ascendance. Much of their attention, however, was drawn to the benefits of the ancient empire, which bound many nationalities and religions together under a central government, a common currency and the rule of law.

Ancient Rome was seen as a model of modern Britain. As a result, Rome was often the subject of British literature and visual art during the Victorian age.

Oddly, one of the greatest British painters of the grandeur that was Rome was born in a small Dutch village. Lourens Alma Tadema (1836-1912) was the son of a notary who was tutored in drawing at an early age and devoted every moment of his spare time to mastering the depiction of the human form. By the time he moved to London in 1870, he was already a well respected artist in Holland and Belgium, and had moved from a Romantic interest in medieval Europe toward a fascination with the ancient world. He Anglicized his name to Lawrence Alma-Tadema and would eventually be knighted. Sir Lawrence found greater acceptance in his adopted homeland than in his place of birth. Britannia, unlike the Low Countries, was hungry for images of ancient Rome.

Making his home in London, Alma-Tadema became acclaimed for the architectural accuracy of his renderings. After all, he was only a carriage ride away from the British Museum, one of the world’s great repositories of ancient artifacts, and he also worked from his own photographs of ancient ruins taken on trips to Italy. But the historical detailing was probably less important to his prosperous patrons than the mood of his images. Highly romanticized, Alma-Tadema’s paintings were luxuriant with beautiful women laying on cool marble surfaces under the warm Mediterranean sun. His view of ancient Rome was idealized and rather Anglicized. Even the Vestal Virgins at worship resembled chaste upper class English women having a frolic at an exclusive boarding school.

Along with his subject matter and its treatment, the embrace of Alma-Tadema by Britain’s monied classes was built on the success of the Pre-Raphaelites who helped define the retrospective, Romantic ethos of 19th century British art. Alma-Tadema’s lustrous vision of the past was a good fit with the guiding artistic spirits of his time and place. Occasionally he departed from the Roman Empire and focused his gaze on the present, accepting commissions to paint portraits of pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski and violinist Maurice Sons. He was well represented in the British pavilions at international events, including the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and was collected by the millionaire William Henry Vanderbilt and other American notables. By the end of his life, Alma-Tadema was one of the most famous and respected artists in his adopted land.

Although he loved the ancient Mediterranean world, Alma-Tadema’s auction results in recent years have been all over the map. A sale this April at Sotheby’s (New York) featured two oils in the best of Tadema’s narrative style. Watching and Waiting, an 18-inch by 26-inch oil on canvas, stayed within its healthy reserve ($700,000-$900,000) selling for $830,000 (including buyer’s premium). Its partner on the block, In the Temple, a 21-inch by 35-inch oil on canvas, did not reach its estimate of $700,000-$900,000 and went unsold.

The Roman Art Class, an unfinished oil on canvas measuring 14 inches by 29 inches sold in December 2007 at Christie’s (London) for $32,735 (including buyer’s premium). Portrait of a Young Man, a 12-inch by 15-inch oil on canvas, appeared at auction three times in the last several years. Nicely done but dark and serious and not at all suffused with the plush opulence that made Alma-Tadema famous, it finally sold at its third auction in March 2007 for just under $7,000 at Christie’s (London).

Likewise, original works on paper have scored results that range across the spectrum. Motherly Love, a superbly rendered 5-inch by 8-inch watercolor on paper sold for $20,372 (including buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s (Amsterdam) in April 2007. By contrast, two chalk on paper sketches appeared in one lot at Christie’s (London) in June of the previous year for $3,012 (including buyer’s premium).

Some of Alma-Tadema’s works are well within reach of even modestly budgeted collectors. A copper engraving, Autumn, the Vintage Festival, 6 inches by 13 inches, sold for a mere $313 (including buyer’s premium) in Edinburgh, May 2006. A 17-inch by 32-inch photogravure (an early print reproduction) sold for $138 (including buyer’s premium) at a British auction house in Norfolk in February 2003.

Like many popular artists whose imagery was steeped in the spirit of their time and place, Alma-Tadema faded after his death. His paintings were left behind as old fashioned in the rush by the art world to embrace one modernist movement after another. Ironically, his influence persisted in that  most modern medium, motion pictures, where his vision of the past influenced the way Cecil B. DeMille and other Hollywood directors depicted the ancient world. During the swinging years of 1960s London, when an interest in Victorian art and architecture surfaced from a counterculture with a Romantic perspective on life’s possibilities, Alma-Tadema was rediscovered by a new generation of collectors. They may have been uninterested in the parallels between Britannia and Rome but were delighted by the painter’s vivid evocations of a lost and pagan world.