Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was one of the most successful painters of the Victorian era. His paintings are noted for fine detail, smooth finish, and realistic representations of ancient artifacts. Alma-Tadema painted exactly what his audience wanted; distinctive and elaborate paintings of beautiful people in classical settings. His incredibly detailed reconstructions of ancient Rome provided his viewers with a glimpse into a world that they might one day construct for themselves at least in attitude if not in detail.
Alma-Tadema's, Entrance to a Roman Theatre of 1866 displays the social life of Pompeii outside of a theater before a performance. The central figures are divided into two groups; a mother and child and a couple. The two pairs seem to know each other, but are not social equals (Barrow 47). The face of the woman on the left is blocked by her companion, and all that is visible is her dyed red hair and gaudy jewelry. The couple appears to be a bit too eager to greet the more reserved and simply dressed woman who approaches with her small son. The small boy wears a bulla, or circular ornament, around his neck, a distinguishing accessory for a Roman child of high rank (Barrow 47). These small but socially precise details, for which the artist is known, help to distinguish the crucial differences in class between the two pairs.
Through an arch on the left, we are given a glimpse of the interior of the theater where the audience is gathering inside. The stage is not visible, but it appears it would be located directly behind the characters in the forefront. To the right a man helps another patrician woman descend from an elaborately decorated carriage. Additional figures in the right background stand and watch the scene in front of them. In this way, Alma-Tadema has put the stage outside. The main performance is taking place before the play; all attention is upon the social interactions of those arriving for the show. The fashionable audience is more concerned with their appearance and being seen than with the performance itself. Alma-Tadema's once said, "the old Romans were human flesh and blood like ourselves, moved by the same passions and emotions" (Barrow 47). Rather than connect the etiquette and customs of respectable nineteenth-century society with those of ancient Rome, the artist uses the painting to satirize the foolishness and faults common to both.
1. Can we judge Alma-Tadema to be an important modern painter of urban life? And if that case can be made, what would it mean that the urban life in question is not of one of the capitals of modernity but of ancient Rome?
2. How did the artist's early training affect his later work? How does this paining differ compositionally than others from this same time?
3. Did other paintings by Alma-Tadema follow this same method of criticism?
Barrow, R. J. Lawrence Alma-Tadema. London: Phaidon, 2001.
Last modified 6 February 2007