On a recent visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I admired the fine details of the painting A Juggler, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This painting shows the figure of an Egyptian juggler performing in front of an audience of patricians in the peristyle of a villa in Pompeii. As I stood in front of the painting, observing the careful rendition of the villa’s interior, its murals, architectural details and furniture, I asked myself the question “Why has it become embarrassing to admit that you like Alma-Tadema’s paintings?” There are some obvious answers to that question, for instance Alma-Tadema’s obsession with subjects from Classical Antiquity and his idealistic treatment of these subjects. But there are many other 19th century artists whose work could be criticised in the same way but whose reputation hasn’t suffered in the same way as Alma-Tadema’s (Frederic Lord Leighton anyone?).
Even though Alma-Tadema was extremely popular in his lifetime, his work fell out of favour after his death in 1912. As the avant-garde emerged, there was no place for Alma-Tadema’s ‘pretty pictures’ in the art world anymore. But surely we are now in a position where we can appreciate 20th century Modernism without feeling the need to reject everything that came before its advent. There are also some who say that Alma-Tadema’s art is vacuous, that it has nothing to say, but following this line of thinking couldn’t the whole Aesthetic Movement and its precept of “art for art’s sake” be discounted on similar grounds? Admittedly, the fact that some Hollywood producers used Alma-Tadema’s paintings as the basis for the design of their movie sets (most notoriously, Cecil B. DeMill for The Ten Commandments) would not have encouraged art scholars and academics to take his work seriously. But the finely crafted details in Alma-Tadema’s works are a testament to the extent of the archaeological research he must have conducted to design his paintings, and it is unfair to discredit an artist on account of who endorses his work after his death. Nobody rejects the Pre-Raphaelites for the reason that Andrew Lloyd Webber is an ardent collector of their works (or do they?).
Perhaps what Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s reputation needs the most is a retrospective exhibition, to let the works speak for themselves once again and enable a new audience to discover his wonderful visions of an idealised antiquity.