Exhibition: Paintings which shaped our view of the Classical Era

Before visiting the exhibition on the mysterious people and their gold, who once lived in Bulgaria, I visited another exhibition. This one not only shows impressive late Victorian art. It also shows how one painter continues to influence our perception of the classical world.

It was not the first exhibition on Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema I visited. It was not the first exhibition containing works by him. It is the first showing his impact on how we imagine ancient Egypt, the Greek world, the Romans looked like.

Throughout this exhibition, snaps of films are shown. In the last room, scenes are running right above the paintings with which they have a close relation. The snaps of films are from the earliest black-and-white silent ones, right up to more recent ones like “Gladiator”.

This fascinating exhibition can be seen in the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden. The museum is only a short walk from Leeuwarden’s main train station. It is difficult to get lost, for the pavement between station and museum shows copies of Tadema’s work at regular intervals.

The modern building houses several exhibitions and museums. There is a Resistance Museum, as well as an exhibition on Mata Hari. Kind museum assistants ensure, visitors of all ages find their way to the exhibition of their choice.

As this exhibition had just opened and Tadema is a local hero, this exhibition was crowded. It is not just his impact on films. His work remains popular.

The first exhibition room shows personal belongings, as well as paintings and drawings Tadema made during his early teens. Right from the start, it was and is clear he had talents. Instead of the law, the arts became his chosen career.

An example of Alma-Tadema's early historical paintings

An example of Alma-Tadema’s early historical paintings

A few years later, he leaves Leeuwarden for Antwerp and Brussels. In Belgium, the vogue and market were all about historical paintings. Tadema paints medieval scenes and his obsession with historically correct details becomes obvious.

There is a sketch of an archaeological find: a Roman sandal. The drawings make clear Lourens A. Tadema studied the way such a sandal must have been worn.

He starts to collect antiques. He marries and his travels begin. There are lovely small studies of Roman ruins, where his wife is shown sitting and knitting – waiting for him to finish his sketches and paintings. There are church interiors, where she saunters towards the edge of a painting or is nearly hidden by a large pillar. In Italy, Pompeii is being excavated. Tadema becomes totally hooked – but then his wife dies.

Tadema closes the Brussels chapter. He leaves the continent; settles in London. He becomes Lawrence Alma-Tadema, to ensure his name is listed under the A in catalogues. A few rooms further, the exhibition points out Alma-Tadema was not just a brilliant painter, but also a very shrewd businessman.

Among the many interesting paintings from the Brussels period and early English one, are the three which were once one big painting. According to the exhibition information, “Hadrian visiting a Romano British Pottery” dissatisfied Alma-Tadema. He cut it up and sold the best pieces to different customers. Three parts are now grouped together again, high on a wall, to show what the painting must have looked like – though parts are missing.

The next room is another very interesting one. In England, Alma-Tadema fell in love with fellow artist Laura Epps. They married. The exhibition room not only shows pieces from the interior of one of their houses. It also shows works by Laura and her two talented daughters.

One of my favourites among Alma-Tadema's paintings

One of my favourites among Alma-Tadema’s paintings

More rooms follow, full of wonderful – though very romantic paintings. Sure, the models are Victorian men and women, set in a Roman or Greek or even Egyptian world. But just look at the marble, the water, and remember how Sir Alma-Tadema would research to try to paint  a historically correct scene. Exhibition text explains, he would throw mega tantrums if engravers – engravings brought in even more money – made tiny mistakes.

Yes, there were contemporaries and there are art historians who do not like his work. The theme of some paintings is indeed sugary and done in a fairly academic style. One totally forgets, that across the Channel, groups of artists were busy inventing Impressionism. But they would never paint such marble and their paintings have not been used to create award-winning film costumes as worn in “Gladiator”.

This is not an exhibition one can “do” in half an hour. There is simply so much to discover and look at. As mentioned above, It does not concentrate on paintings alone. There is furniture Alma-Tadema created and used in his paintings. There are items he collected, cupboards he and his second wife decorated, works by her and other artists. There are his paintings versus the Hollywood interpretation, and much more.

With a mind full of Roman visions, I could not take in more. So Mata Hari and the Resistance Museum had to be left for a later visit. Leeuwarden also has a nice town centre with period buildings and a rich history. So one can easily spend a leisurely weekend visiting this Alma-Tadema exhibition, the exhibition on Mata Hari, the rest of the museum and other museums as well as discover the historic town centre. And while in Leeuwarden, why not try acquiring a few words of Frysk?

“Alma-Tadema,Classical Charm” can be visited till the 7th of February 2017 at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden. As this exhibition is proving to be so popular, the museum’s opening hours have been extended. There is a small surcharge during this exhibition. The museum has a small shop on its first floor, dedicated to this exhibition. The museum’s main shop can be found on its ground floor, where the large museum café is also situated.

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