Review: Alma-Tadema – classical charm at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden

Sir Lawrence (Lourens) Alma-Tadema was born in Dronrijp, near Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. In 1870 he moved to London and in 1899 he received a knighthood. He has made a numerous amount of paintings, mostly of classical subjects.

This exhibitions offers a view in the development of Alma-Tadema’s style, as well as the interaction between his house, studio, family and painting and the influence of his work on (early) Hollywood depictions of antiquity.

The exhibition opens with an overview of his life, portraits of his family and some early work. We see the influence of 17th century Dutch painters like Gerrit Dou in his portraits, for example this portrait of Frederika Reijnders (picture from the catalogue).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Portrait of Frederika Reijnders, 1850-1854. Oil on paper, 57 x 44.5 cm. Fries Museum, Leeuwarden.

From there, it moves to Alma-Tadema’s obsession with the classics. There are several objects like vases and cups exhibited which we see in his paintings as well. We see the stories he painted, we see sketches for Roman footwear, we see Lesbia weeping over her dead sparrow.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Lesbia Weeping over her Dead Sparrow, 1866. Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 48.3, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, Utah.

In the next two rooms, we meet the whole Alma-Tadema family and Townshend House in Regent’s Park, the house they lived and worked in. I was very pleased to see plenty of works by Lawrence’s second wife Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (née Epps) and his daughter Anne. Here are the family portraits, furniture designed by Mr. Alma-Tadema, a stunning room divider with members of the Epps family on one side and William Morris’s Fruit wallpaper on the other side. The Morris wallpaper is also seen in ths painting by Laura’s sister Ellen Epps (later Gosse), depicting Laura in the ‘Dutch room’ at Townshend House.

Portrait of Laura, Lady Alma-Tadema, probably entering the Dutch Room at Townshend House, Regent's Park, 1873 (oil on canvas)
Ellen Epps, Portrait of Laura, Lady Alma-Tadema, probably entering the Dutch Room at Townshend House, Regent’s Park, 1873. Oil on canvas, 76.3 x 63.5 cm, Collection Peter and Dorothy Wright.

It was amazing to see a lot of the panels from the Alma-Tadema’s Hall of Panels together. There were 45 panels, made by themselves or by their friends. In the exhibition, panels of Sientje Mesdag-Van Houten, John Singer Sargent, Frank Dicksee, Herbert Gustave Schmalz and Frederick Leighton are shown among others.

From there on, we move to a wall of portraits and another one with sketches for theatre decor and costumes. This room leads to the last one, which could be dubbed “Alma-Tadema and his obsession with the marble bench” (you all know the one I’m talking about).

It is impossible to describe all the paintings in that room. There are a lot and all of them are very bright, very classical and include lots and lots of marble.
The colours are so vivid and radiant that it’s impossible to do them justice by describing them or posting pictures, because it’s nothing like the original. I just can say that you get the feeling that you’re looking at the pictures through 3D-glasses because of the depth that comes from the thin layers of paint. The sea shines brighter than you can imagine, the marble is very white, the ladies are very elegant and have the most amazing expressions.

In this last room, the exhibition shows the influence of Alma-Tadema’s works on the (early) Hollywood depictions of antiquity. A fragment of The Ten Commandments (1956) is projected above The Finding of Moses (which is also a work that’s better than any picture you’ll ever see of it online, so here’s an online picture. There are pastel pink glowing pyramids in the top right corner but you can’t see them here).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Finding of Moses, 1904. Oil on canvas 137.7 x 213.4 cm, private collection.

Other films of which fragments are projected include Quo Vadis? (1913), The Sign of the Cross (1914) and Gladiator (2000). These images are also included in the promotion clip for the exhibition.

An amazing collection of works has been brought together for this exhibition. It is a bit unfortunate that the rooms are not that large and contain a vast amount of objects, which sometimes makes it difficult to see everything (especially when it’s the first weekend of school holidays and you’ve forgotten that fact, which means it’s crowded with parents trying to educate their kids who’d just rather play Pokemon Go). The exhibition catalogue dives even deeper into Alma-Tadema’s preference for the classics and also his friendship with Lord Leighton, as well as his influence on the young Gustav Klimt, this because the exhibition will also be shown in the Belvedere in Vienna and the Leighton House in London.

The exhibition runs until 7 February 2016 in Leeuwarden and then from 24 February to 18 June in Vienna, with it’s final showing from 7 July to 29 October in London.

Last but not least, I’d like to give a shout-out to the very friendly staff at the Fries Museum. They also created this video and uploaded it to their Youtube channel. Heroes.


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