A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world. — Oscar Wilde
ir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Dutch painter who moved to England, was elected member of the Royal Academy, and received a knighthood, was one of the most important exponents of the classical movement in Victorian painting, a man who became the apple of the country's eye. For the most part he did not diverge from the path to success he had carved out for himself and he stayed true to the painting of classical Roman subject pictures. Countless numbers of his works, such as The Discourse and The Vintage Festival, for example, serve the simple function of displaying an idealized Rome to his eager audience. But there is also a much more cynical side to the painter. Perhaps because Rome was really a dream in the minds of the Victorians, and as psychoanalysis will tell you dreams are microscopes into ourselves, Alma-Tadema was self-conscious enough of what he was doing as an artist to leave behind a few paintings that betray a certain irony. We shall discuss these paintings and find that he was well aware of the critical possibilities available to an artist representing the Victorian dream of Rome and so he was not merely the lapdog of his patrons.
The Roses of Heliogabalus [contemporary discussion] refers the notorious Roman emperor who was known for his frolicsome endeavours. The painting depicts him at his decadent best: smothering and killing his courtiers with hundreds and thousands of flowers, a past-time he was infamous for. The painting is rendered exquisitely, with the beautiful colours and softness of the petals brought out fully as they float through the air, emblazoning the canvas, but the perverse decadence of the emperor was certainly risqu subject matter for Alma-Tadema. A moral critique of the historical event was published in response to the picture and naturally it deemed the murder by a million petals reprehensible but it found the painting exceptional. Interestingly, Heliogabalus would have been the ideal subject for somebody like Swinburne; the emperor was famous for his eccentricity, particularly his flouting of Roman religious and sexual taboos. The morally perverse implications of the painting shows Alma-Tadema's admission of the decadence of Rome and suggests that he is questioning its idealization by the Victorians or at least distancing himself from it.
Entrance to a Roman Theatre is another painting that critiques Roman society as opposed to merely representing it blindly. The bright red and orange colours of the main characters' costumes, as well as their ostentatious patterns upon them, suggests the gaudiness of the Romans, the 'gaud' which Bulwer-Lytton also refers to in his preface to The Last Days of Pompeii and constantly acknowledges in his characterization of their manners and style. Much more explicit in its critique than the previous painting the subject matter of this one is openly ironic. By focusing the painting on what happens outside the theatre rather than inside, Alma-Tadema moves the spectacle to unsuspected territory and therefore questions whether the audience is not so much interested in the beautiful theatre of Rome but rather its gossip. This gossip happens to be an awkward interaction between a couple on the left and a mother and child on the right. The open stance of the man with his leg pressed forward, seeming to affably lean towards the mother, contrasts the mother's diffidence as she seems irresponsive cornered. The awed child looks on at the couple unnoticed by them. Perhaps the bizarreness of the interaction arises in class differences or perhaps the contrast marks the distance between idealized conversations and reality. Either way, in this painting it seems as if we are in the world of the performance where how one presents oneself, also the mere fact of presenting oneself, at the entrance to the theatre is more important than the theatre itself. By collapsing the idealized vision of Rome here Alma-Tadema uses it as mirror for Victorian society and criticizes both past and present bourgeois cultural pursuits as hollow acting to hold up false self-images
Several other of Alma-Tadema's paintings suggest an ironic distance between the artist and his representations. These are much more like mirrors than the other paintings in that they literally mime the audience and expose the irony of idealistically looking at oneself through the eyes of a Roman. Among The Ruins is much more historically ambiguous than the archaeologically bent pictures we are used to from Alma-Tadema. The costume of the female character in the painting suggests antiquity but not as definitively as in the previous paintings. This has the ironic effect of suggesting that the painting is really a representation of a Victorian in costume. But the subject matter is more ironic than that. With the sea in the background the woman bends down pushing back a flower seemingly inspecting the pristine white ruins on the floor around her. If we take the painting with a little salt then it could be a reference to the Victorians' obsession with Rome and how this is mirrored by the feebleness of a person surveying the dead remains, the ruins, of a bygone age. The artist is certainly very explicit here about what he is doing by representing Rome through his paintings — he is very self-conscious - and although the irony may not be particularly critical or judgmental it certainly mirrors Rome as a dream instead of ballyhooing it off as unmediated reality.
To this end The Roman Potter is one of Alma-Tadema's most simple paintings and seems to offer the audience a very ironic picture of social class structure. Probably the least luxurious of his paintings, a realistic feature given the subject, it simply shows a scantily clad Roman potter carrying a tray of his clay-works up a wooden staircase, not quite as theatrical as the Pre-Raphaelites but still showing some tension in the limbs of the labourer. The painting is fascinating because the potter has his back facing the viewer as if his social status deems him unworthy of being represented fully in the picture. The irony here could be that for every beautiful aristocratic Roman face we see in Alma-Tadema's paintings there is also a member of the masses who has been left unrepresented because he is not Romantic enough for the audience. Yet clearly these people are to be valued as well, the painter shows us that the labourer, here the potter, produces something that is used by society. Here the mirror reflects nothing face on because as a moral class critique it shows the audience that there is nothing reflected back except the potter's bare back. Indeed if we look at Hadrian Visiting a Romano-British Pottery the only working class figure, perhaps the potter of this painting, is pushed to the corner of the picture and barely represented.
The last few paintings we will look at, like the previous one, do not contain much explicit critique but they are the most developed ironic mirrors Alma-Tadema has produced. They implicate art in their irony and force the audience to think about the painting critically. A Collection of Pictures at the Time of Augustus is a wonderfully ironic painting. It can be seen as parody of the Victorian art scene and the dream of Rome. As the title suggests the scene is set in a Roman artist's studio. The viewer faces a group of people converged around a painting with two people in the background examining one of the two paintings behind them on a wall. The front scene shows an artist finishing off a canvas with his wealthy patrons seated behind him, observing expectantly. The viewer's perspective to the canvas is very similar to the perspective in Velazquez's famous Las Meninas where one only sees the back edge of the picture being painted. The art dealer in this painting stands looking down at both the slouching woman, who leans on a cushion, and the man behind her on a chair, perhaps her husband, but they continue to look at the painting.
The art dealer's expression and more importantly his half-curled hand extended and pointing towards the artist at the painting express his subservience to the buyers; he seems like a lifeless salesman offering up his product and waiting for the collectors' approval. The buyers themselves, particularly the woman, parody the art collector as idle and flabby. The ironic implications of the subject choice here are that Alma-Tadema perhaps sees himself as merely a servant of his audience and that by painting Roman life so obsessively, and that too at the beck and call of his patrons (or the institutions that control art like the Royal Academy), he is creating something second-hand and inauthentic, a Platonic imitation. He also draws attention to the fact that by mirroring the Romans the Victorians are merely simulating the past and not living it in any positive sense, a past that is perhaps only an aesthetic simulacra itself. By making his viewer's look at a painting being produced and sold in a Roman setting and not the painting itself, thus mirroring the process of production from the perspective of the painting, he ironically displaces many of the ideals the 'Olympian dreamers' associated with the representative power of visual art. In Velazquez' painting the odd perspective privileges the viewer, who is meant to be the king, but here it ironically questions both the value of what we are seeing and the medium through which it is seen.
A Roman Art Lover shows several wealthy Romans gathered around a statuette of a woman in a lavish house and functions as an extension of the previous critique. The mirror effect of the viewer looking at a person evaluate a piece of art through what is itself a work of art forces him to think about the painting critically, as we have said about the previous painting, and this also places the painting in the parodic mode which uses imitation as a critical lens. A seated man who appears to be the owner of the house and the artwork seems to be showing off a new acquisition to some guests. Among the guests standing around the artwork displayed on a table a senior man leans on the table examining the golden legs of the statue very intently. Again this painting parodies these apparent art-lovers for the way that they use art to broach their social status and to keep ahead of their neighbors. Like the previous painting this displaces the aesthetic value of the art and here it makes art seem almost too much the representation of a certain class's political aspirations. Apart from the obvious class critique that this painting makes, that the Victorian dream of Rome is exclusively class privileging and class based, it also tacitly suggests that the dream is merely mediated through art, aestheticised and not actually reproduced. Another painting by the same title of this one places the artist, a sculptor, in the centre of the picture encircled by a group of wealthy Romans who seem to be infatuated by what he is doing. Like this painting this has the ironic effect of suggesting that the Victorians' worshipping of Rome is really the worship of art because it is always worshipped through art and so the image is perhaps the only true mirror of Victorian life we can find in the entire classical movement.
All of these ironic paintings show us how Alma-Tadema is actually much more self-conscious of Rome as a dream in the minds of the Victorians than we first might think. He seems to have been fully aware of the social implications of idealizing Rome without representing its less ecomonically affluent side and also the fact that Rome was essentially a myth, an idealization of the upper crust of Victorian Britain and not by the masses. The irony of these paintings serves as a fascinating lens to look at the Victorian dream of Rome and the double meanings it offers, although not as nuanced or as explicit as one might like, suggest that he is prepared to be critical of the art-world and the culture he is a part of. Interestingly, Alma-Tadema seems to also be aware of the aesthetic contradictions inherent in trying to embody ideals, abstractions, in the physical, that tautology between essence and embodiment In response to Bulwer-Lytton's idealistic remark 'Dream manfully and nobly, and thy dreams shall be prophets' he seems to be cynically holding up a mirror to the man and saying that art merely represents it doesn't produce. Perhaps he saw the dawn before the rest of them did. (is Alma-Tadema not an aesthete in disguise like the other Olympian dreamers but instead a full blown cynic?)
The Victorians as Olympian Dreamers: The 'Togification' of Britain
- 'Classic Revel': How Fiction Becomes Fact in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii
- Whose Dream Is It Anyway?: The Myth of The Toga
Barrow, R. J. Lawrence Alma-Tadema. London: Phaidon, 2001.
Last modified 8 February 2007