Alma-Tadema: The painter of the Victorian vision of the ancient world

Alma-Tadema: The Painter of the Victorian Vision of the Ancient World by Vern G. SwansonSir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), the painter of “Victorian in Togas,” was one of the most successful artists of the nineteenth century, receiving a hundred years ago the present equivalent of $250,000 for a single canvas. Yet within a few years of his death, he was all but forgotten. If his name was mentioned at all, it was as “the worst painter of the Victorian era.”

Removed from the reactionary prejudices of the generation following his death, Alma-Tadema’s work is once again highly regarded for the light int sheds on the Victorian taste and for its intrinsic merits. It is expensive, avidly sought by collectors, and has been the subject of several important exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the first major modern appraisal of the life and work of this remarkable and original painter, Professor Swanson, a noted American art historian, provides an account of the fascinating world of Victorian commercial art and the rise and fall of the reputation of one of its greatest heroes. Using many contemporary references, he tells the story of Tadema’s Dutch background, his Continental studies, and his rise to fame as a central figure in the Victorian artistic establishment, and his life a s a leading light in London society. Swanson discusses the aesthetics, subject matter, style and technique of the artist in whose works are vividly depicted the Victorian vision of the daily life of ancient Rome — it’s wealth, gladiatorial entertainments, public baths, scenes of domestic intolerance, fabulous banquets, and an extraordinary blend of the exotic and erotic — which bore striking parallels to the cherished sentiments and mores of Victorian society.

Almost as fantastic as his imaginary world of Rome was Tadema’s own — his enormous wealth, his lavish palaces in London and his intimate relations with a group of friends that included the Prince of Wales. Tadema’s powerful personality, his methodical techniques and his prodigious output are also revealed in the narrative.

The many black and white illustrations, integrated into the text, provide a valuable accompaniment to the study of Tadema’s life and work and range from family photographs to details from his sketchbooks, from plans of his fabulous homes to his theatrical furniture and designs.

The 32 color plates show off superbly Tadema’s technical brilliance — his unrivaled ability to render architectural detail, archaeological paraphernalia, and such complex textures as marble — and establish his status as the first genuine photorealist, the precursor of the widescreen Hollywood epic, and a painter of unmatched light and beauty.

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