detail detail

Left: Detail from The Women of Amphissa by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Right: Entire painting.

Click on thumbnails for larger images.

The Women of Amphissa is one of Sir Lawrance Alma-Tadema's final paintings in which he portrays a dated historical event. Known for his preoccupation with quotidian views of Rome, Alma-Tadema renders these scenes with photo-realistic precision and care for the aesthetic. The Women of Amphissa is no exception. Through his archaizing views, Alma-Tadema provides Victorian society a glimpse into the classical world, allowing them to identify with its inhabitants and imagine its wonder.

Amphissa was the capitol of an annual festival in honor of the god Bacchus. In 350 B.C., the territory was over-run by an army from Phocis, stirring fear that the bacchantes would become vulnerable after their celebrating to attack by the enemy soldiers. The women of Amphissa consequently stepped in to protect the sleeping bacchantes throughout the night, guarding them from being ravished by the opponent. Alma-Tadema portrays dawn at the Amphissian marketplace the morning after, its women serving food, standing watch, and caring for the exhausted Bacchantes. (source)

The material details of this painting lend themselves to fleshing out the themes inherent to painting — protection, femininity, and hospitality. Alma-Tadema pays careful attention to surfaces, calling attention to the flowers, water, food, animal skins, vases, portraying the vast abundance of provisions for the weary, and highlighting the generosity of the women of Amphissa. The architectural details also play an important role. Visibly enveloped in the sturdy stone construction of the marketplace, the bacchantes are protected not only by the individuals surrounding them, but also by the architecture. Alma-Tadema draws an interesting parallel between the row of standing women in the center of the painting, and the row of columns framing the right-hand side. With this juxtaposition, the artist suggests the strength of these women, as they surround the sleeping ladies with as similar strength to the neighboring structure.

According to one observer, "an assortment of south Italian and Athenian painted vases are combined anachronistically with the larger silver krater from the Roman Hildesheim treasure," (of which the artist owned a replica). This anachronism serves two purposes. First, it suggests the timelessness of this scene, suggesting that hospitality towards one's fellow man could happen in the Athens, Amphissa, or Victorian Britain. Second, it harkens back to more than one time in antiquity, enabling the artist to showcase his artistic prowess in rendering material objects spanning the classical period.

Finally, it should be noted that the color white dominates the artist's palette. The sky, the flowers, the awnings, the pillars, the floor-tiles, and the robes of many of the women are all some shade of white. The presence of this shade suggests redemption for the bacchantes, and mercy on the part of the providers. There seem to be few scenes in art history depicting women helping women. David, echoing Poussin in his Rape of the Sabine Women, depicts the heroic Hersilia instilling peace in the face of Roman/Sabine war. Alma-Tadema, instead of a single heroine, portrays numerous female benefactors, blending them among those in need. The Women of Amphissa, therefore, portrays humanity- and femininity, at their best.

Questions

1. John Ruskin, who praised antiquity later in his career and suggested that art should imitate nature, repudiates the work of Alma Tadema. Why does he find the artist's paintings so offensive when Alma-Tadema presents such a seeming likeness of art to nature and features antiquarian scenes?

2. Alma-Tadema seems preoccupied with instances of humanity, (like his Emperor of Rome, AD 41, for example, which portrays a seemingly noble figure in the midst of ignoble action.) Comment on the role of the "fallen woman" in this painting. Is there an apparent division between the bacchantes and the Amphissians? How would the implications of the painting change if all its subjects were male?

3. Discuss the theme of exterior versus interior. Is this marketplace scene truly outside, or is there a suggestion of enclosure in the physical situation of the characters?


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Last modified 8 February 2007