The Art Pendulum

Victorian Painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was one of the highest paid artists of his day, selling A Reading From Homer for $30,000 in 1903. The equivalent today would be $950,461.

The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888 
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón
The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón

However, Victorian art became ridiculed as candy box art in the 20th century and his 1888 $7,000 commissioned painting of The Roses of Heliogabalus attracted no more than a $185 offer in 1960. Today, the pendulum is swinging back towards acceptance of his tastefully erotic and highly technical works, with his The Finding of Moses (1904) selling at a Sotheby’s auction on November 4, 2010 for $35.9 million.

The Finding of Moses 1904  Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Private collection
The Finding of Moses 1904 Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Private collection
Copyright: imago/United Archives International  Tepidarium 1881 Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema  
Lady Lever Gallery
Copyright: imago/United Archives International Tepidarium 1881 Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Lady Lever Gallery

The above small gem (9.5″ x 13″) is one of my favorite works by Alma-Tadema displaying perfectly his virtuosity in skin tones, marble, and textures. I traveled to Port Sunlight outside of Liverpool specifically to see this painting in the Lady Lever Gallery.

In 1999, I visited London’s newly opened Guildhall Art Gallery, housing a portion of the city’s art collection.  Though practically empty of visitors that day, this excellently designed museum contained some unexpected gems, especially in its Victorian collection. Just above an exquisite Alma-Tadema was The Betrothed by his follower John William Godward (1861-1922). Comparing the two, it is evident that the admirer rivalled the master.

Pleading  1876 Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Guildhall Art Gallery
Pleading 1876 Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Guildhall Art Gallery
The Betrothed  1892 John William Godward  Guildhall Art Gallery
The Betrothed 1892 John William Godward Guildhall Art Gallery

While Alma-Tadema had the fortuity to die before his work went completely out of fashion, Godward was not so lucky. “Godward was one of the many Victorian painters who survived well into the twentieth century to despair of the new kinds of painting and to see their own work derided. On December 13, 1922 he was found on his studio floor with his head in a packing case and his mouth against the gas jets (…he had pinned a note on the door saying simple ‘Gas’)” ( Victorian Pictures / by the Guildhall Art Gallery).

To explore further about the revival of classical realism and realist art, visit The Art Renewal Center.

Originally printed in the “Massey Fine Arts” newsletter Vol. 7 No. 1, Winter © 1999, 2022 by Ann James Massey, SWA, CPSA, UKCPS, AAPL

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