Saturday, December 27, 2014

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Self-Portrait

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Self-Portrait, 1896
20.79 x 25.87 in.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was born in the Netherlands to Frisian ethnicity. Originally named Lourens Tadema, he later changed his first name to the more Anglo-sounding Lawrence and adopted his middle name of Alma as part of his surname so that he would appear at the beginning of exhibition catalogues.  His family intended Lawrence to become an attorney, but at fifteen he suffered a physical and mental breakdown.  He was diagnosed with consumption and allowed to spend his time painting since he was expected to die shortly.  However Lawrence did recover and chose to pursue a career in painting, attending the Royal Academy of Antwerp. In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War caused him to leave the continent and move to England where he lived the rest of his life, eventually earning a British knighthood.  Alma-Tadema is mostly known for his Academic style and draughtsmanship that he brought to portrayals of Classical scenes, such as The Death of Hippolytus and scenes of everyday life in the ancient world.  In addition to showing everyday life, Alma-Tadema also painted many quiet portraits that show the deep emotional resonance of events in Classical mythology and history.  One excellent example shows Agrippina holding the ashes of her husband Germanicus, who was mourned by all of Rome.  In England Alma-Tadema met the Pre-Raphaelites and became influenced by their style.  Many of his works bear their mark and show an interest in the lives of upper class women in the societies of ancient Greece and Rome, which many have related to the British society that Alma-Tadema observed.  The self-portrait I chose to post was in fact Alma-Tadema's second, having also painted himself in 1852.  The earlier painting was done just after his period of illness, when Lawrence was just beginning his artistic career.  It shows a boy setting out on his life, determined but trepidatious. The 1896 piece shows a mature man, sure of himself, and still determined.  One feature in both paintings is the gaze out toward the viewer. Many self-portraits have this feature due to the technique of painting with a mirror, but the way Alma-Tadema meets our eyes conveys much about his person.  He paints himself with an openness and authenticity, and retains a certain softness in both paintings despite the intervening decades.  The artist's skill certainly improved over the years.  The 1896 portrait has great delicacy and skill, each brushstroke carefully and deliberately applied to shape the forms and light, compared to the slightly blocky forms in the earlier work.  The mature portrait also demonstrates great attention to detail, in the hairs of his beard and the shine of his face, the pattern of the wallpaper behind him, and the gleaming wood of the easel. The painting is so alive, Alma-Tadema almost looks surprised to be discovered by us in the midst of his work.

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