A Sculpture Garden (1875) is archetypal of Alma-Tadema's archaeologically oriented domestic genre. His version of classicism generally avoided grandiose historical events and instead depicted highly detailed views of domestic life in ancient Rome. Of all of the "Victorian Olympians," Alma-Tadema came closest to mastering an archaeologically correct approach to antiquity.
In terms of subject, A Sculpture Garden is similar to an earlier series on the same theme, such as A Picture Gallery, but stylistically it demonstrates the artist's increased technical skill in the depiction of material objects: fabrics, bronze, silver and above all else, marble (Barrow, 79). Nearly every piece of art is recognizable. A slave, identified by the table hanging around his neck, turns the centerpiece of the painting, believed to be the Mermaid Tazza, a bronze or perhaps porphyry statue of the mythological sea monster, Scylla, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. To the left sits a sixteenth-century version of the bronze Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents now attributed to the Italian sculptor Guglielmo della Porta (Palazzo Reale di Carpodimonte, Naples) (Lovett, 67). It incongruously stands atop a fourth-century BC column drum from the temple of Artemis at Ephesus (British Museum, London) (Barrow, 79). The rinceau carved around the doorway is a copy of the door frame in the House of Eumachia in Pompeii, one of many architectural details Alma-Tadema fondly borrowed from Pompeii.
The statue of the seated woman is a third century AD marble of Agrippina, mother of Caligula, now in the Musei Capitolini, Rome. The gargoylelike table in front of the Mermaid Tazza has yet to be identified, but the silver dish that rests on it now belongs to the Antikenmuseum in Berlin, and the Galloping Horse to the far right is thought to be from the fourth century BC (Museo Archelogico Nazionale, Naples). Finally, on the opposite side tucked behind the statue of young Hercules is a Roman copy of a bust of Pericles from the mid fifth century BC (Musei Vaticani) (Lovett, 67).
Needless to stay, Alma-Tadema's capacity for archaeological and architectural detail is impeccable. What is more, painting is his first major painting to depict what was to become his trademark: what Barrow correctly calls a "bravura display of white marble" (Barrow, 80). From the 1870s onwards, marble was to assume a preeminent role in his works, especially in paintings such as After the Audience (1879) and Soppho and Alcaeus (1881).
Keeping with habit, the people depicted in The Sculpture Gallery are Alma-Tadema's Victorian contemporaries and not Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians. In fact, he prominently features himself as the man with an outstretched arm. All of the other figures, except the slave, are also contemporary portraits: Washington Epps is seated on the far left next to his sister, Ellen Gosse, and Laura, Anna and Laurense, his wife and daughters, stand to the right. Although his models — oftentimes family and friends — did not reflect the traditional classical ideal, Alma-Tadema did not believe this corrupted the archaeological purity he stove towards. "He firmly believed," writes Jennifer Lovett, "that while history changes, human nature remains constant" (Lovett, 17). In Alma-Tadema's own words:
It has been said, I know, that some of my Greeks and Romans are too English in their appearance. But, after all, there is not such a great difference between the ancients and the moderns as we are apt to suppose. This is the truth that I have always endeavoured to express in my pictures, that the old Romans were human flesh and blood, like ourselves, moved by much the same passions and emotions. (Cited in Lovett, 17)
By peopling his carefully researched settings with contemporary Britons, his paintings flattered a bourgeois public eager to see its lifestyle mirrored by citizens of ancient Rome. In addition, few of Alma-Tadema's literary sources were obscure, if a composition was based on a narrative at all. His paintings, therefore, readily appealed to the nouveau riche, many of whom had taken the Grand Tour, knew of the recent discoveries of Pompeii, or had read Edward Bulwer Lytton's popular novel, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) but lacked an erudite education. Thus the nouveau riche could more easily see themselves within Alma-Tadema's paintings than they could in the more sophisticated compositions by painters such as Leighton, Watts, or Poynter.
Classicism veiled in domesticity was especially attractive to the Victorian public, eager for relief in whatever form from the troubling social problems that accompanied industrialization. Alma-Tadema's classicism provided an inviting view of distant and exotic places that one could easily relate to. At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855 which included the largest collection of British art yet shown on the continent, one critic captured the sentiment with which many greeted Alma-Tadema's domestic scenes: "To pass from the grand salons appropriated in the Palais des Beax Arts to French and Continental works, into the long gallery of British pictures, was to pass at once from the midst of warfare and its incidents, from passion, strife, bloodshed, from martyrdoms and suffering, to the peaceful scenes of home" (Cited in Lovett, 16).
As The Sculpture Gallery successfully demonstrates, Alma-Tadema considered objects just as if not more important than figures. This painting, like so many others, could be appreciated in purely aesthetic terms and for its reproduction of specific works of art.
Barrow, Robert. Lawrence Alma-Tadema. London, New York, 2001.
Lovett, Jennifer et al. Empires Restored, Elysium Revisited: The Art of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Williamstown: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1991.
Victorian Classicism in Painting: Common Inspiration with Eclectic Ends
- Frederick Lord Leighton — Aestheticism with a Hint of Didacticism
- Sir Edward Poynter — Action and Accuracy
- Albert Joseph Moore — Beautifully Purposeless
- John William Waterhouse — Making Myth Real
Last modified 15 May 2007