A Victorian Painter of Moments

NINETEENTH century artist Laura Alma-Tadema seems on the surface to have lived her life in a celebrity's shadow; a woman who, though quite talented in her own right, downplayed that talent. She is generally characterized as a painter in the Dutch genre, and identified as the wife of the immensely popular Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Yet the image of a skilled artist oppressed by a paternalistic marriage is a picture Laura Alma-Tadema would have disagreed with, in great measure because she felt her marriage freed her to paint what she wanted.

BORN Laura Epps, she came to know Sir Lawrence when she was his pupil, and later married him after the death of his first wife. Sir Lawrence didn't demand that she paint what he painted or that she subordinate her work to his. As one contemporary stated, ``She appears to have resisted what would have been a pardonable surrender to imitation'' and added that she and her husband were ``a perfect example of what Shakespeare calls the `marriage of true minds,' only comparable to that of the Brownings.''

She had a small but vigorous notoriety of her own. She was one of only two women painters invited to contribute to the 1878 International Exhibition in Paris. Her paintings won a silver medal at the World's Columbia Exhibition of 1893, a gold at Berlin in 1896, and another silver at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. She exhibited in many London galleries, such as the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery, was quite popular in Berlin, and had a show of her own (although posthumously sponsored by the Fine Arts Society of London.) The composer of the catalog said that ``her art and her life were examples of sanity and beauty not always associated with the artistic temperament.''

The best way to understand what Laura Alma-Tadema was doing in her paintings is to compare her work to that of her most prominent teachers, her husband and Ford Madox Brown. Brown prefaced William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who formed the core of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelites painted in reaction to what they called ``High Renaissance technique and the Grand Style.''

Brown's work was considered formal, dramatic, and his style was said to have been in part influenced by the Nazarenes - a fraternity of German artists who had been working in Rome since 1810. The Nazarenes wanted to regenerate religious art by imitating the early Italian and German masters, and Brown drew upon their teachings. But the price of formality was stiff symmetry in design and the presentation of character types rather than characters.

Sir Lawrence, while rejecting much of what the Pre-Raphaelites stood for, nevertheless shared their penchant for the posed and the prior. He painted specialized reconstructions of Roman life with a Victorian bent. Sir Lawrence's Romans were clean, refined, sensitive; the interiors and exteriors of their houses were bossed and decorated, sumptuous and lavish. In his illustrations of Roman life the rough-and-tumble of empire had not stolen from the citizens their civilized (read: Victorian) natures, and the barbarians hadn't yet knocked at the door.

Both artists, for different reasons, felt the need to elevate their art into Art. This may have satisfied their own natures and the aesthetic yearning of their customers, but it drained the common reality from their paintings and left behind a legacy of richly textured and painstakingly rendered, but dead, monuments.

LAURA ALMA-TADEMA seems to have rejected such airy iconography. Instead, she was a painter of moments, not the momentous, which is why she was so often labeled ``Dutch.'' The subjects that seemed to please her most were children, innocent coquetry between lovers, well-appointed rooms in large houses - in short, a domestic topography of people and their affections, people engaged in the minor but necessary tasks. It seems she painted out of a desire simply to record the life as it happened around her, not to illustrate grand theory or pose as a hieratic defender of Art.

In the catalog that accompanied her posthumous exhibit in 1910, the writer said that she seemed to allow ``children to romp into her canvas,'' and that she was particularly good at capturing ``the gestures, the games, the laughter, even the little affectations of childhood.'' Today her children may seem posed and artificial, too clean to be real. But they are not extraneous to the life depicted in the painting, and all seem content.

The relationship between children and adults was also an important subject, providing scenes of genuine affection and tenderness in a number of Alma-Tadema's works. In ``Bright Be Thy Noon'' (1894), a mother holds her baby up to her eye level, gazing steadily into its eyes. True, the rooms are well-appointed, the baby's cradle is large enough to house several babies, and the mother's gown has a rich brocade sewn into it. But Alma-Tadema seems to mock that sumptuousness, gently, as if to say that such richness is no substitute for the maternal touch.

In her love paintings, there is a reticence between the lovers that is sometimes comical, sometimes coy. In ``The Persistent Reader'' (1896) a young man is more engrossed in a book than in the woman who looks at him with a mixture of impatience and imploring, on the verge of both leaving and staying.

Even pictures of self-love have this quality of reserve and subdued excitement. ``Love at the Mirror'' (1907) shows a lovely young woman gazing at herself in a mirror, oblivious to the finery around her, the mirror her only reality, not so much self-absorbed as concentrated and inquisitive. It is as if while brushing her hair (her right hand grips a brush) she suddenly paused to ask herself who this woman was who gazed back at her.

One of Alma-Tadema's best-known paintings, ``A Knock At The Door'' (1897), combines all these qualities of comfort and soft self-indulgence and small excitement. A young lady, ready to meet her lover, spends a moment preening in front of a mirror. She is dressed in a gown that is simple in line and elegant in material; her hair, drawn in a tight bun with curls around the ears, is draped in pearls. In the foreground is a chair with a cape on it, spools of thread and scissors suggesting a last-minute alteration.

The colors are subtle, mainly pinks, grays, and buffs, yet there is a glint in her eye that echoes the spring greenery just seen through the window and the sprays of flowers hanging from her mirror frame. It is a moment of transition, of expectation shading into satisfaction, the ``story'' of the painting nothing more (but also nothing less) than the ``story'' of the girl preparing herself.

LAURA ALMA-TADEMA chose to concentrate on those interstices in living: a mother's momentary gaze into her child's eyes, a girl sitting pensively in the window seat's sunlight, two young people caught in the choreography of their feelings. True, in a moment the feeling is gone, but the progression of these moments becomes the sum total of our life experience. While the grand synthesizers such as Madox Brown and Sir Lawrence are important, equally important are those who chronicle the action moving along under the synthesis.

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