Erotic depictions of women in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography from the dawn of man to the present.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Roman Bathing Venus 3: By Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

In the Tepidarium (1881)

This, in Triple P's opinion, is the apotheosis of the classical subject as an excuse for an erotic nude in Victorian painting.   One of a series of Roman bathing pictures by the man born as Lourens Alma-Tadema in Dronrijp in the Netherlands in 1836, he took up the classical bathing theme having seen a number of similarly themed pictures by that other pillar of Victorian classicism, Lord Leighton.  Whilst Leighton set his bathing pictures in the world of Ancient Greece, however, Alma Tadema's classical bathers were all Roman.

Alma-Tadema's father died when he was four, leaving him with a sister and three elder half-brothers by his father's first wife.  His mother engaged a drawing tutor for the older boys and the young Louren's joined them showing an immediate facility.  He was destined for a career in the law but was diagnosed as consumptive as a teenager and wasn't expected to live long.  His mother let him give up his formal studies so  he could carry on drawing and painting in the short time she thought he had left to him.  Alma-Tadema unexpectedly recovered his health and began formal training in art at the age of sixteen at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp where he studied for four years.  He voluntarily gave up his formal training to work on commissions and started by painting subjects relating to the history of Belgium and Holland.

Gallo-Roman Women (1865)

In 1862 Alma-Tadema went to London where he visited the British Museum and its collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities. On returning home he started work on some Egyptian-themed works using things he had seen in the museum as inspiration.  In September 1863 he married Pauline and took his honeymoon in Italy visiting Rome and Pompeii.  Pauline is something of a mysterious character and Alma-Tadema only mentioned her once, to say he had got married, in his writings.  In 1865 he painted his first Roman-themed work, Gallo-Roman Women and from then on paintings set in Ancient Rome became his mainstay.  Pauline died in 1869 and later that year, unwell himself, he visited London again for medical treatment where he met seventeen year old Laura Epps, the daughter of a famous society physician (he had been Emily Bronte's doctor, for example).

Laura-Theresa Epps (1871)

Fed up with the largely negative reception to his paintings in Brussels and struck by Laura, Alma-Tadema moved to London, where paintings of classical subjects were much more popular, permanently in 1870.  He never lost his Dutch accent and indeed never really learned to speak English at all fluently but as a painter he was an enormous success. Engaged as Laura Epps painting tutor they married the following year and she started to model for him.  He was thirty four, she eighteen.  Some credit Laura for his London success as she apparently told him to brighten up his paintings and make them commercial as she didn't want to live in penury for the rest of her life.  In 1873 he changed his name from Lourens to the Anglicised Lawrence.

In the Tepidarium was painted ten years later in 1881 and is almost unique in Alma-Tadema's ouevre.  He rarely painted nudes except as small figures in larger, historical settings as we shall see shortly.  Despite being in the lukewarm room of the baths his subject has a flushed, almost sweaty face.  She contemplates an outrageously phallic strigil, used to scrape oil off the body. The curve of this historically accurately rendered object seems to echo the curve of her hip and thigh and generates images of it stroking her pliant body.  The loosely held peacock fan appears to be about to drop from her fingers such is her lethargic, abandoned state.  It covers her groin whilst also drawing attention to it; the tips of its feathers caressing the area enticingly.  Her right leg presses against her left one almost as if she is rubbing them together.  This is a highly sexual painting.

Apart from the strigil and the marble there is little that justifies the nude, in Victorian terms, by its historical setting.  It is really just an eroticised vision of a contemporary naked woman dropped into a (barely) historical setting.

The original picture is tiny: Triple P saw it in an exhibition in London once and if you click on the image above what you see on your computer is probably larger that the original which is just 13" x 9" (24cm x 33 cm).  At the size of one of Alma-Tadema's regular paintings the erotic effect would have been overpowering.  For example, referring to his much larger A Sculptor's model (1877) the Bishop of Carlisle observed: "To exhibit a life-size life-like almost photographic representation of a beautiful naked woman strikes my inartistic mind as somewhat if not very mischievous."

The Sculptor's Model (1877)

This picture was produced for the painter John Collier's father.  He had wanted Alma-Tadema to take on his son as a pupil which Alma-Tadema (as usual -Laura Epps was an exception) refused to do.  He did, however, let John sit in on the creation of this picture which was done in the nature of an instructive piece.  After this Alma-Tadema did not paint any more single nudes (other than In the Tepidarium) unless they were incidental figures in larger compositions.

An Apodyterium (1886)

A good example of this is his next Roman bath house picture, An Apodyterium (changing room), painted in 1886.  The only nude figure is just off centre removing her shoe. The main figure, on the left, looks at the viewer who knows she is about to undress.  The erotic charge is much more subtle as we imagine what we could see shortly.  This painting was voted "picture of the year" by the Pall Mall Gazette.

The Frigidarium (1890)

An Apodyterium was bought by Sir Max Waechter who commissioned a companion piece, The Frigidarium in 1890.  It has a similar right hand side weighted composition but the naked women in this have dropped even further into the background as they sit around the cold pool in the baths.  Waechter a  German-born but naturalised British business man and art collector is best remembered for ensuring the preservation of the magnificent view of the River Thames from Richmond Hill by preventing development on its lower slopes.

Thermae Antoninianae (1899)

Alma-Tadema's penultimate Roman bath painting is the Thermae Antoninianae (also known as the Baths of Caracalla) of 1899.  A spectacular rendition of the architecture of the baths in Rome it contains a myriad of figures, in contrast to his earlier works.  As his bath house paintings progressed they contained more figures as if he was zooming out from the solitary figure from In The Tepidarium to encompass the entirety of the bath house experience.  This image mixes men and women, something that happened only in certain times in Roman history; usually the two sexes bathed at different times of day.  One critic observed that this scene showed how "the frivolous society of the decaying Empire lives again in this picture."  Alma-Tadema later declared it to be his favourite painting,  That same year he was knighted.

A Favourite Custom (1909)

His final bath house painting, A Favourite Custom, brings the nudes to the fore again as two young ladies desport in the water,  It was painted in 1909 the year his wife Laura, who had become a very well regarded painter in her own right, died during a visit to Hindhead in Surrey at the age of 58.  Alma-Tadema was heartbroken and the following year only managed one painting.  He died in Wiesbaden, which he was visiting for health reasons, in 1912, and is buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral..  

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)

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