For this essay about modern and contemporary art, I have chosen the Victorian era and two classical-subject painters from this era to compare and contrast; divulging how they were influenced and inspired by the happenings and world around them. Before comparing a piece of work of each artist, I intend to look into how their lives and contextual issues affected them as both men and artists, shaping the way they became and moulding them into artists who chose to depict classical subjects as opposed to following along with the other movements of the time; movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism; Fauvism and Expressionism, which came into being later on in the artists’ careers and would have been an easy bandwagon to jump onto.
The two artists that I have chosen for my subjects are Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912); and Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896); and their works chosen for this writing are Alma-Tadema’s The Triumph of Titus: AD 71 (1885) and Leighton’s Daedalus and Icarus (1869).
I’ll start with Alma-Tadema, the Dutch-born child of a notary, intended to follow in his father’s footsteps pursuing a career as a lawyer. As a part of his childhood education however, his mother decided that her children should have drawing lessons due to her having artistic leanings and seeing it as something significant to their education. At age 15, Alma-Tadema suffered both a physical and mental breakdown, diagnosed as consumptive and given only a short period of time left to live; he was permitted to spend his last days of life as he pleased and he spent them drawing and painting. He eventually recovered rather than succumbing to the consumption and from then decided to pursue a career as an artist. It’s an extraordinary idea that this peculiar set of circumstances is what started the career path of this amazing artist.
After his formal training at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, Alma-Tadema chose Merovingian and Frankish history themes as his subjects, however, realising that these subjects didn’t hold much international appeal, he moved onto themes of ancient Egyptian life, establishing himself as a compelling classical-subject artist.
In 1863, Alma-Tadema and his newly-wed wife spent their honeymoon in Italy, visiting Florence, Naples, Rome and most notably, Pompeii. His visit to Pompeii coincided with the first systematic excavations to take place at the site, started in 1860. Fascinated and captivated by the ruins, this trip is what inspired the artist to delve into and reimagine the lives of the ancient Romans and thus Alma-Tadema had found his perfect subject matter. Throughout the course of this trip is where also he started his collection of photographs; an invaluable resource of reference material that Alma-Tadema used throughout his career to achieve historical authenticity.
In 1869, Alma-Tadema’s wife, Pauline, died of smallpox and he himself suffered from a medical problem which doctors in Brussels were unable to diagnose or help with; his newly acquainted art dealer, Ernest Gambart, advised him to seek medical attention in London. Alma-Tadema took this advice and travelled to London the same year, meeting the woman who would become his next wife, at the house of Ford Madox Brown, falling in love at first sight. Despite that fact however, Alma-Tadema returned to Belgium only to return again to London, where he would spend the rest of his life; due to the outbreak of the Franco Prussian war in 1870. Another astonishing chain of events that further led the artist to become who he did and create the work that he did.
Life in London was good to Alma-Tadema, he became one of the most highly paid artists of the time, and after becoming friends with the notorious Pre-Raphaelites, he was influenced to brighten his palette, vary his hues and lighten his brushstrokes.
In 1872, Alma-Tadema and his wife Laura made a journey on the continent, spending five and a half months away and revisiting the ancient ruins. He purchased more photographs and gathered more valuable knowledge about the lives of ancient Romans, thus informing his creative endeavours further. He returned yet again to Rome and Pompeii in 1883 and further excavations had taken place since the last visit; Alma-Tadema spent most of his time studying the site of the ruins every day; this bountiful source of information and subject matter played a crucial role in the development of his proficiency and his artwork.
As for Alma-Tadema’s use of photographs as a reference material, he was also known to use photographs as an artist’s proof to check the tonal balances of his paintings in progress and once finished, the availability of photography a helpful aid to the artist in more areas than one.
These are the contextual issues and events that occurred to and around Alma-Tadema and influenced him to become the artist that he did and create classical-subject paintings.
Before comparing Alma-Tadema with Leighton I’ll give an overview of Leighton’s background and the events that led him along the path that he took in the art industry.
Frederic Leighton was born into a wealthy family and his father paid him an allowance throughout his life and so he had this to cushion his choice of career; that being said though, his parents strongly discountenanced the notion of him becoming an artist unless he could become eminent in the trade. This must have pushed Leighton to succeed as by 1855, he had sold his first painting to none other than Queen Victoria, a move that set up his entire career from then on. Leighton completed his artistic training and returned to London in 1859, his mind set on his work.
Leighton’s boyhood and adolescence were spent travelling on the continent due to his mother’s dislike of the British climate and ‘polluted’ environment, therefore all of Leighton’s artistic training and study occurred elsewhere in Europe, setting him apart from his peers in Britain. In the most part this done him great favours but he had a stigma attached to him causing people to question his ‘Britishness’. One direct result from Leighton’s training abroad was his systematic approach to starting a painting; he would study the nude body, whether or not the figures would be clothed in the final painting; this was a practice that the British schools and artists didn’t favour, it was a discipline founded on continental academic traditions. The continental training that Leighton received plays the biggest role in the work that he carried out and gave him a unique stand amongst his contemporaries in Britain.
Leighton’s lifetime coincided with last gasps of the age-old idea that the Western world held, that ancient Greek and Roman sculpture were the very pinnacle of achievement in the history of art. Despite his rich knowledge of classical art, however, Leighton as a younger man was initially drawn to Medievalism; it wasn’t until his first visit to Greece in 1867 that his interest shifted to the classical world and it was at this point that he became the classical-subject painter he is renowned to be.
The Victorian London that both Alma-Tadema and Leighton lived in was rife with classical influences; a lot of which was seen in the neo-classical and Greek revival architecture, Ionic and Corinthian columns and pilasters were being built into private residences all over London as well as Palladian mansions; and even on a much bigger scale with many public buildings including the National Gallery and the British Museum. Coupled with this boom in Greek revival architecture was the fact that nineteenth-century Britons used ancient Greece and Rome in their philosophy, political theory, poetry and fiction and it was also popular in the theatre.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton although being very different in many respects, also shared many similarities, foremost of these similarities is their fond love of the classical world that had been before them, both men were highly knowledgeable of both classical art and literature and they both strived to reinterpret that world through their own practice. One prominent difference in their practice is that Alma-Tadema went all out to depict historical accuracy and archaeological detail in his work, setting his scenes to be as realistic as being alive in that time period. Leighton on the other hand was more concerned with the idealised human form and setting his figures in an alluring landscape; although he painted classical myths, his real ideal was beauty and his approach to that was very aesthetic. Both artists chose to work predominantly with oil paints and this enabled each to capture immaculate detail and create paintings that give you a glimpse into the world they depicted.
Another startling similarity between Alma-Tadema and Leighton is the source of their inspiration and influence, each man was inspired into creating the works he produced by a place they visited. For Alma-Tadema it was Rome, a city rich with history and ancient monuments, the same with the ruins of Pompeii and the well timed excavations, without which who knows what type of artist Alma-Tadema would have become. For Leighton the inspiration came from his first visit to Greece, the starting point of the classical world, the origin of the mythology, literature and arts of the classical world; this set Leighton’s aesthetic focus on Greece, rather than Rome.
A strange difference that arose between the two artists is the types of subjects they each decided to depict in their artworks; Leighton mainly chose mythological narratives, drawing on sources such as Homer and Ovid; the stories that tell of epic battles, great heroes and the pomp and glory of being such a hero. Alma-Tadema however, usually avoided grandiose historical events or mythologies and chose instead to depict highly detailed insights into everyday life in the ancient world, his classicism bridged a gap and offered an inviting view into a world that the people of his time could relate to and feel a part of.
As noted before, Alma-Tadema and Leighton shared a strong fondness of classical sculpture and they both drew on this for inspiration in their own artworks, using it as a point of reference for form, pose and drapery. Each man had his own collection of reference material as well; Alma-Tadema amassed his colossal collection of photographs, numbering somewhere over five thousand photographs of all manner of things: architecture, ruins, artefacts, sculptures, animals, aqueducts and so on. In Leighton’s studio were plaster cast replicas of classical sculpture which he drew on for inspiration at times; both men’s libraries contained classical texts and volumes on classical art and archaeology. Despite both men drawing inspiration and being mindful of classical sculpture, they both used living models and actual draperies as the immediate source for the figures in their paintings.
Moving on from the artists and onto their works, I have chosen a painting from each that shows the defining characteristics of the artists themselves. Alma-Tadema’s painting The Triumph of Titus: AD 71 is a historical scene inspired by the account recorded by the Greco-Roman historian Josephus; the scene, set in Rome, shows the triumphal procession in celebration of Titus’ famous sack of Jerusalem. Alma-Tadema’s scrupulous attention to details no matter how minor also becomes evident in the size of his work surfaces. Between these two pieces of work, Alma-Tadema’s painting is less than one third of the size of Leighton’s painting.
Leighton’s painting Daedalus and Icarus is a Greek mythological scene from the poetry of Ovid; the scene is set in Crete, Greece, and shows Daedalus strapping the newly invented wings onto his son Icarus and warning him not to fly too low or too high for fear of the wings failing. Icarus however, ignored his father’s advice and flew too high resulting in the sun melting the wax from the wings and him crashing to his death in the sea. The mood of this painting is very poetical, heroic and classical in nature, a contrast to the mood set by Alma-Tadema’s painting which is a triumphant, celebrative display of power and conquest. Also in contrast to Leighton’s detailed work being focused into the idealised human form and the drapery, muting the surrounding features; Alma-Tadema has painstakingly strove for historical accuracy and archaeological detail “Alma-Tadema was particularly concerned to justify the authenticity of his scene. A letter to the commissioner of the painting, William Walters, reveals meticulous research.” (Barrows, 2001, 119)
Both artists took reference from classical sculpture, in Alma-Tadema’s painting the ageing Emperor Vespasian, depicted wearing a toga has been referenced from portrait busts; as for Titus, he has been given a similar broad face and features and his distinctive breastplate armour is based on the Cuirassed Statue of Titus from Herculaneum – 1st Century AD (Archaeological Museum, Naples). Meanwhile, Leighton’s Icarus has been inspired by the Apollo Belvedere – ca. 120-140 AD (Vatican Museums), Karl Kilinski II commented “Such modelled effects in Leighton’s painting may reflect not only his increasingly sculptural style, but also his transposed source of inspiration.” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/20074373?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)
It’s interesting to note the two totally different final outcomes of two artists of the same time period with very similar tastes and knowledge of the classical world, even more so when considered that they both drew inspiration from classical sculpture for their own work.
Colour is another area where these two paintings differ, Leighton has painted using strong hues of blues, white and flesh tones, typically Greek colours and it gives a very Mediterranean atmosphere to the scene; also, Daedalus’ darkly tanned and twisted proportions add further to the perfection of young Icarus’ body. Alma-Tadema’s scene contains gold, silver, white and red and these colours truly boost the scene’s imperial validity, the colours chosen show the power and iron fist of the Roman Empire in all its glory.
In conclusion of this study of Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton, it’s very clear how the world around them and the events and happenings of their lives set them up to become the artists that they were, the works that they created were a testament to their knowledge, interests and lives.
Barrows, R, J, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, London, Phaidon Press Ltd
Rhys, E, Frederic, Lord Leighton, London, George Bell & Sons
Waterfield, R, The Greek Myths: Stories of the Greek Gods and Heroes Vividly Retold, London, Quercus Publishing
Brill – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema Collection
http://www.brill.com/sir-lawrence-alma-tadema-collection. [Accessed 29th May 2015]
Lawrence Alma-Tadema Biography
http://www.alma-tadema.org/biography.html. [Accessed 29th May 2015]
Carole McNamara – Recent Museum of Art Acquisition: Oil Painting by Alma-Tadema
Frederic Leighton Biography
http://www.frederic-leighton.org/biography.html. [Accessed 9th June 2015]
Leighton House Museum – Leighton’s Drawings and the Classical World
http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/lordleightonsdrawings/ldessays/essay4.asp. [Accessed 9th June 2015]
John Nagler – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Sculpture Garden – Where’s the Story?
http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/tadema/paintings/nagler.html. [Accessed 9th June 2015]
John Nagler – Frederic Lord Leighton – Aestheticism with a Hint of Didacticism
http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/leighton/paintings/nagler.html. [Accessed 9th June 2015]
Karl Kilinski II – Frederic Leighton’s ‘Daedalus and Icarus’: antiquity, topography and idealised enlightenment
http://www.jstor.org/stable/20074373?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. [Accessed 9th June 2015]
Jacqueline Banerjee – Styles in Domestic Architecture
http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/homes/styles.html. [Accessed 10th June 2015]