Alma-Tadema: Classical Charm

by Matthew Innis |


Alma-Tadema was the most successful and seductive storyteller of his day. He accomplished this by an innovative use of space in his work. Through his great knowledge of archaeology and classical antiquity he managed to bring the days of ancient Rome to life in paintings. His scenes were received so enthusiastically all over the world that our present image of classical antiquity was influenced by them. In Hollywood too, Alma-Tadema’s interpretation caught on and became the basis for seminal films about this era, from Ben-Hur to Gladiator. His international top pieces and his world now meet in the Museum of Friesland.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Dronryp 1836 – Wiesbaden 1912) grew up in Friesland (as Lourens), studied painting at the Academy of Arts in Antwerp, and then headed to London. There he became one of the most renowned and best paid artists of his time. His sense of spatiality, his love of theatre, his intuition in choosing the right friends, his fabulous technique and his archaeological knowledge made him so successful. In 1899 he was knighted, which entitled him to write Sir in front of his name. His work was also sold to America, ending up in the collections of the wealthiest individuals of that time, such as William H. Vanderbilt.


Staging Antiquity
His painted scenes appeal to the imagination and are totally convincing. Even though we may not be aware of it, our picture of Roman antiquity has been largely defined by Alma-Tadema. The exhibition explores how this came to be by very closely following Alma-Tadema’s personal life and artistic career.

Tadema Meets Hollywood
No one could paint as convincingly as Alma-Tadema, so it is hardly surprising that Hollywood and Cinecittá were only too eager to convert his paintings into moving images for their Roman spectacles. Those early directors were after all looking for a visual language for the new mass medium of film and Alma-Tadema provided them with the blueprint for it. And this continues on to this day. Director Ridley Scott studied Alma-Tadema when making his successful films Gladiator (2000) and Exodus (2014). Scott’s production designer, Arthur Max, sees Alma-Tadema as someone who shows us Rome as we want it to appear, not necessarily as it really was.

Where: The Fries Museum, Leeuwarden (NL)

When: October 1, 2016 – February 7, 2017

Recent Articles