The Pyrrhic Dance; a drawing for illustration after the painting 'The Pyrrhic Dance'

The Pyrrhic Dance; a drawing for illustration after the painting The Pyrrhic Dance by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM RA 1836-1912. Pen and ink on paper: 8 1/2 x 11 3/4 inches, 21.5 x 30 centimetres.

Commentary by Hilary Morgan

This drawing relates to Alma-Tadema's The Pyrrhic Dance (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), which was one of his first Royal Academy exhibits in 1869, and which was exhibited again in his one man show at the Grosvenor Gallery in the winter of 1882-3. Ruskin saw it on the. latter occasion and attacked it savagely in his lecture on Classic Schools of Painting given at Oxford in 1883. However his memorable description of it as 'exactly like a microscopic view of a small detachment of black beetles, in search of a dead rat' tells us more about Ruskin's troubled mental condition at this time than about the painting itself.

The drawing postdates the painting. Alma-Tadema made it for reproduction in the Art Annual of 1886, where it is reduced to just under half size. The period around 1880 -- the years of the 'Aesthetic Movement' - saw a huge explosion of interest in art in Britain, and many new art books and magazines appeared. It was also a period when mechanical techniques of block making began to replace hand engraving in illustration. However, until the perfection of photographic process engraving in the late 1880s, the new techniques were most successful when applied to line drawings. Enterprising publishers therefore commissioned.pen drawings of modern paintings from the artists themselves. Blackburn's Academy Notes, which began to appear in 1875, is the most celebrated example of this phase in the history of illustration. It is interesting that Tadema has emphasised the creative aspect of this means of reproduction by increasing the foreground space in his drawing. The original painting frames the dancers tightly. The new composition undoubtedly reflects his interest in the compositional techniques of Japanese prints (Swanson, 1977), which use similar unconventional organizations of space.

"The Pyrrhic Dance itself was named after its inventor Pyrrichos and was performed by armoured Dorian soldiers who imitated movements of attack and defence.

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Morgan, Hilary and Nahum, Peter. Burne-Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Century. London: Peter Nahum, 1989. Catalogue number 116.

Swanson, Vern G. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The painter of the Victorian vision of the ancient world. London: Ash and Grant, 1977.

The City's Pictures (Catalogue of the exhibition). Barbican Art Gallery, London 1984.

Zimmerman, Helen. "The Life and Work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema". The Art Annual: The Art Journal, 1886.

Last modified December 2001