In 1903 the artist Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema was at his creative and social apogee. Knighted by Queen Victoria his paintings regularly hung in the prestigious “Royal Academy” where newly wealthy industrialists from both sides of the Atlantic competed to purchase his works. It was the year that “A Reading From Homer,” sold for the incredible sum of $30 000. It was the highest price ever achieved for a contemporary picture to that date.
By 1960 his paintings were worthless. His name was forgotten. Swanky Mayfair picture dealers kept his works in dusty vaults ashamed to exhibit them. When they did sell, it was as often as not for peanuts or for the elaborate carved gilt frames that housed the works. The painting themselves were regarded as “fit only for the cover of a chocolate box lid.”
The “Candid Camera” millionaire rescues a reputation
It was into one such gallery that Alan Funt the American millionaire creator of “Candid Camera” strolled one day in 1967 looking for something decorative to furnish his apartment. The condescending dealer asked Funt if he wanted to see a painting by “the worst Artist who ever lived?” Intrigued Funt was shown Alma Tadema’s “The Voice of Spring.” He instantly fell in love with the picture and the artist. For the next six years, he haunted the showrooms and salerooms of London snapping up his works, often as not for a few hundred dollars each.
The British Art establishment was slow to catch up, still laughing up their collective sleeve at the “parvenue” American with the hideous taste in painting. Though prices for Tadema’s work increased slowly, they were still selling for a fraction of the amounts they had been bought for seventy years earlier. Then disaster struck. In 1973 Funt’s accountant was indicted for embezzling $12 million. Bankrupted, he was forced to sell everything. “I had everything a rich man has,” he said, “except cash. I had a big house in the country. I had a co‐op apartment, cars. But I couldn’t sell anything. It wasn’t legally mine any more. I was in debt, and all I had were my paintings,”
Funt sold his collection at Sotheby’s in 1973. It was the dawn of a new area of interest in Victorian painting. Sotheby’s readily confessed, “had he have come to us with the collection even a few years earlier we would probably have turned it away as not worth our while. Alma Tadema was still considered “beyond the pale” to most connoisseurs.” On Nov. 6, the sale went off at Sotheby’s Belgravia, London as “the centre for Victoriana.” It was a sell-out. The total raised was $570,000, a massive increase in the price Funt had paid for his works only a few years earlier.
The sale sent shockwaves through the International Art Market. Almost overnight Tadema became fashionable again. Dealers rushed to their cellars to dust off long hidden canvases. Society matrons took the paintings down from the servants quarters and hung them in their sitting rooms. Alma Tadema was back.
It was fitting that a member of the entertainment industry helped rediscover the artist and his masterworks because there is no doubt he had a significant influence on the youthful and burgeoning Hollywood.
Alma Tadema, the man who inspired the Hollywood epic
Alma Tadema was born in Holland in 1836. Though he trained on the continent by 1870, he was living in England and spent the rest of his life there as a naturalised Englishman. Once in Britain Alma-Tadema’s career was one of continued success. He became one of the most famous and highly paid artists of his time, acknowledged and rewarded in equal measure. By 1871 he had met and befriended most of the significant Pre-Raphaelite painters, and it was in part due to their influence that the artist brightened his palette. Most of his works were of Roman or Greek antiquity, and he became renowned for his interpretations of Roman life. From early in his career, Alma-Tadema was particularly concerned with architectural accuracy, often including objects that he would see at museums in his works. He also read many books and took many images from them. He amassed an enormous number of photographs from ancient sites in Italy, which he used for the most precise accuracy in the details of his compositions.
It was these works that inspired the new film directors of Hollywood. Most early history movies took their interpretations direct from Alma Tademas paintings. Alma-Tadema’s meticulous archaeological research, (which was so thorough that every building featured in his canvases could have been built using Roman tools and methods) led to his paintings being used as source material by Hollywood directors in their vision of the ancient world for films such as D. W. Griffith‘s Intolerance(1916), Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934), and most notably of all, Cecil B. DeMille‘s epic remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). Indeed, Jesse Lasky Jr., the co-writer on The Ten Commandments, described how the director would customarily spread out prints of Alma-Tadema paintings to indicate to his set designers the look he wanted to achieve. The artist’s “emphasis on personal drama, his wide-angle perspective, and the colossal scale of his works set the scene for the epic film industry.
Ridley Scott and “Gladiator.”
Even modern filmmakers looked to his works for inspiration. The designers of the Oscar-winning Roman epic Gladiator used the paintings of Alma-Tadema as a central source of inspiration. The crew of Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic starring Russell Crowe, studied his work before making the film with the result that many of the sumptuous external sets are practically direct copies of his paintings
Archaeologists now have a far more sophisticated idea of how the ancient Romans and Greeks lived, fought and dressed. Much of it is a direct contradiction of the conventional image most of us have of the ancient world. But our “every day” understanding of Rome, Greece, Babylon and Egypt come mostly from movies, and those movies got their inspiration direct from Alma Tademas paintings. Not a bad legacy for the “worst painter who ever lived”.
A great painter with a bad reputation?
Today Alma Tadema’s paintings can once again fetch millions and are increasingly appreciated for their romantic and technical skill. He may never reach the heights of critical acclaim he did during the reign of Victoria, but the label that has dogged him for so many decades is now unquestionably a thing of the past. The worst ever artist, or a superb painter able to evoke a time and culture few could imagine without his canvases? I am with Alan Funt all the way.
For a look at how Holywood film director Mel Gibson destroyed the reputation of one of Britains greatest war heroes read my blog on http://www.englishmanlovesamerica.com/banastre-tarleton-american-villain/