Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM, RA (British 1836-1912)
Provenance: Commissioned by Messrs Charles W. Deschamps, London, 1881; Henry G. Marquand, New York; American Art Association, Jan 23rd, 1903 (no. 45), sold for $10,600; Messrs M. Knoedler & Co., New York, sold Feb 1903; M C D Borden, New York; Allen Funt, New York, by 1971; Sothebys Belgravia, Nov 6th, 1973 (18), sold for £7,500; Messrs Thomas Agnew & Sons, London; Private collection; Sothebys Belgravia, Apr 18th, 1978, sold for £7,500; I Vosko; Private collection.
Exhibited: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mar 1973 (18); Rotterdam Art Foundation, May 1874; Het Princessehof, Leeuwarden, Jul. 1974 (25).
Literature: Swanson, Vern G., The Biography and Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Garton & Co, London, 1990, p. 216. (Cat no. 273, opus CCXXXIV); Becker et al, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Exhibition catalogue, passim. Wood, Christopher, Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters 1860-1914, Constable, London, 1983, passim; illustrated p. 129.
In its depiction of the more anecdotal details of Greek and Roman life, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tademas work was, arguably, of a more immediate appeal to the Victorian public than the lofty, highly intellectual creations of Frederic, Lord Leighton and George Frederick Watts. Obsessed with antiquity, Tadema crammed his paintings with the details of ancient life, and in doing so made antiquity seem more accessible to the Victorian age. His concern was less with depicting ancient myth and history, than with the glittering realities of the visual world. Instead of battle scenes or high drama, he opted for minor incidents, for moments of calm repose or contemplation. These were depictions of Victorians in togas: Tadema painted the ancients as he would his contemporaries. For one critic, Tademas ancient world was as bourgeois as a Dutch kitchen.
Born in the small Dutch village of Dronrijp, Tadema entered the Antwerp Academy in 1852, at the age of sixteen. His passion for history and archaeology, and his technical abilities, were evident from a young age, and his earliest works draw inspiration from the annals of Merovingian history and Ancient Egypt. Tadema first visited Italy when on his honeymoon in 1863. He was immediately struck by the architectural grandeur of Rome; but it was archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum that transfixed him most. He awed at the everyday relics of ancient Roman life, and he began to read, measure and photograph with a passion that never left him.
Tademas accidental meeting with the influential art dealer Ernest Gambart in 1863, was to have a profound effect on the artists creative output, as well as his financial security. Gambart was supposed to be visiting the studio of another artist, but one of Tademas friends contrived to direct Gambart to Tademas studio instead. The dealer was immediately struck by the commercial possibilities of Tademas work, commissioning 24 paintings from the artist, and using these works to build Tademas reputation throughout Europe, and especially in London. Gambart found no shortage of buyers for Tademas work in the burgeoning Victorian middle classes, and the artists appeal continued to grow throughout the 1860s.
Tadema settled in London in 1870 and, as Christopher Wood observes, the timing of his arrival, undoubtedly encouraged by Gambart, could not have been more perfect. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, arriving just as the Classical revival, which began in the 1860s, was in its pomp. Following in the lofty traditions of Leighton and Watts, Tademas work enjoyed immediate success with the buying public, even if critical success was less forthcoming. John Ruskin was one critic who was typically acerbic about Tademas brand of Classicism, comparing one work to a detachment of beetles looking for a dead rat. Tadema further offended the establishment with his blatant depiction of nudity, The Sculptors Model in 1877, which caused the Bishop of Carlisle to observe that while we must assume the old masters knew no better [it] was somewhat, if not very, mischievous for a living artist to exhibit a lifelike, almost photographic representation of a beautiful naked woman. As Wood observes, the nude had been surreptitiously ushered back into Victorian art, veiled in a number of decorous classical disguises. The distinction, between the acceptable depiction of nudity in Classical form, and the morally unacceptable presentation of the modern nude, was not lost on Tadema, and he was more chaste in his depictions of nudity in future works.
Tadema married his second wife, Laura Epps, in 1871. Epps, a painter in her own right, appeared in many of Tademas works. The couple were notoriously generous hosts, giving at homes every Monday, and dinners and concerts on Tuesdays. As a character, Tadema was genial and welcoming, extremely diligent and unashamedly ambitious. He had a brash but somewhat childish manner, delighting in puns, riddles and practical jokes, and in his vast collection of mechanical toys. He enjoyed his material success as well as the artistic honours bestowed him (he was elected a Royal Academician in 1879). On arrival in London, Tadema briefly stayed at the residence of the artist Frederick Goodall, who was travelling in Egypt, before moving to Townshend House, a small property opposite the North Gate of Regents Park. In the mode of the successful Victorian artist, the house was brightly and elaborately decorated in an eclectic mix of ancient and modern styles, and cluttered with ornaments and objects, many of which served as props in Tademas paintings. Reflecting the artists obsession, the artists studio was decorated in the Pompeian style, with a dark red ceiling, and wall panels adorned with hand painted arabesques, garlands and medallions.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Tadema was at the apogee of his talent, and at his most productive. His acceptance into artistic society can only have been helped by Leightons election to the presidency of the Royal Academy in 1878, and in 1882, Tadema was afforded a solo exhibition of 287 works, held at the Grosvenor Gallery. Critical reactions to the exhibition were mixed; while his technical mastery could not be doubted, he was accused of being excessive with his use of detail, almost to the point of distraction, and of failing to endow his characters with genuine emotion. However, his devotion to correct subject matter, as well as his lack of a moralistic slant, kept him in vogue with both the Academy and the aesthetic movement, and the viewing public continued to adore his work.
Tadema revelled in his success. In 1885, he moved to a large house in St Johns Wood, previously owned by the artist, James Tissot. Like Townshend House, he filled his new home with exotic clutter. There were two studios: one in the Dutch-style for his wife Laura, and a predictably Roman-style studio for Tadema himself. By the 1890s, his output had begun to slow, but he continued to attract recognition for his work, with honours including a knighthood and an Order of Merit. His apotheosis was a banquet given by 160 fellow artists in the Whitehall Rooms in 1899. Shortly after his death in 1912, Tadema faded into obscurity, and his reputation only began to revive in the 1960s, when, among others, the American scriptwriter Allen Funt (who owned the present lot in 1971) began to collect the artists work. His work was also to have a significant impact on the cinema. During his lifetime, Tadema was a successful stage designer (he worked with both Henry Irving and Beerbohm Tree), and certain of his scenes appear posthumously in the epics of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. de Mille, notably Intolerance (1919), Cleopatra (1934) and The Ten Commandments (1923, remade in 1956). Ironically, just when his critical repute was at its nadir, Tadema was reaching by far his largest audience.
The present lot, finished in December 1881, is typical of a number of works of this period, which depict one or two figures, set before a marble bench, with a bright sea beyond. The painting continues the theme in Tademas work of amorous encounters in secluded rendezvous. On a glowing white marble exedra, exposed to the soft sea breeze from a placid Mediterranean sea, sits a lovely girl who looks down, away from the imploring gaze of her handsome admirer. The title Amo te Ama me (I love you, do you love me?) comes from a Dutch novel by Carel Vosmaer. The words appear on a ring which Aisma, a character in the novel that was closely based on Tadema, presents to his love, Marciana. While reflecting the spirit of the scene, Tadema has taken the liberty of placing it in a classical context. The painting can be closely related to a work of 1883, A Declaration (Opus CCLVIII), a larger work, executed in watercolour, which was used by the engraver Leopold Lewenstam, when he was reproducing Amo te Ama me. In both works, a cloaked male figure sits to the right, his hand outstretched to an elaborate, claw-footed armrest, while a coy female figure sits to the left, eyes downcast, endowing the scene with a certain ambiguity, the viewer unsure as to her response to the cloaked intruder.
Originally commissioned by Messrs Charles W. Deschamps in London, Amo te Ama me was bought by Henry Marquand, a New York financier and collector, who served as President of the Metropolitan Museum. In 1884, Tadema was commissioned to design a suite of furniture to decorate the music room of Marquands New York mansion. What Tadema designed was typically elaborate, incorporating Grecian motifs in low relief, and using a mixture of exotic materials. Tadema employed the assistance of his fellow artists such as Edward John Poynter and Frederic, Lord Leighton, to assist with the decoration. When completed, Marquand hung two of Tademas works, including Amo te Ama me, on the walls of the room.
In a famous photograph of the artist in his studio at Townshend House, Tadema is depicted standing beside his mantelpiece. Beside him stands an easel, on which rests Amo Te, Ama Me. The photograph, by Joe Parkin Mayall, was reproduced in Stephens Artists at Home (1884, p.29)
It has been suggested that in fact the painting shown in the photograph of Alma-Tadema in his studio is a watercolour of 1883 called 'The Declaration'.