Alma-Tadema – ‘the worst painter of the 19th Century’

Above is Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s innocently titled painting The Tepidarium. And the question you ask yourself is – how did those Victorians get away with it?

Alma-Tadema, a Dutchman who became a giant of the high Victorian art scene, features largely in Victorian Olympus, part of William Gaunt’s trilogy on Victorian painters (The Pre-Raphaelite Dream and The Aesthetic Adventure are the other two), which is one of the most readable and entertaining art histories ever written.

Even in his day, Alma-Tadema was characterised, wildly, by Ruskin as ‘the worst painter of the 19th century’, and his reputation plunged in the 20th century to such a nadir that in 1960 the Newman Gallery found it impossible even to give away, let alone sell, The Finding of Moses, one of his most famous paintings. In 1995, it sold for £1.75 million.

What had happened in the interim? The catalyst for the Alma-Tadema revival was one Allen Funt, the creator of the TV show Candid Camera, whose accountant stole all his money, leaving him obliged to sell his large collection of Alma-Tademas, bought while the artist’s reputation was at rock bottom. The ensuing sale at Christie’s in 1973 sparked new interest in the artist, and he has remained one of the highest-priced Victorians ever since.

It’s not hard to see why – that flesh, that marble, those skies… Not a great artist, but certainly not ‘the worst painter of the 19th century’ – for that honour there is an awful lot of competition.

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

10 thoughts on “Alma-Tadema – ‘the worst painter of the 19th Century’

  1. Worm
    July 14, 2011 at 08:56

    …during monday night’s ‘British Masters’, the new BBC4 series on 20thC british art, the presenter James Fox also voiced his opinion that Alma-Tedema was just about as low as you could go

    July 14, 2011 at 09:45

    One of the advantages of blogging Nige is every day, learning anew. I had always thought that Alma-Tadema was Spanish, a sort of chocolate box Picasso.
    The Moses picture of the infant’s rescue by the Egyptian social services dept and subsequent transfer to a children’s pyramid is a fine piece of poster art.
    I can reveal to you the worst early Victorian painter, the bloke who originally painted our kitchen, Rembrandt van Tweed, discovered after peeling back one hundred and eighty years worth of cover up.

  3. Worm
    July 14, 2011 at 10:08

    Surely Landseer must take the crown for most execrable popular victorian painter? His painting Saved is knuckle-bitingly mawkish, and let’s not forget Attachment, which was so popular on it’s release that it required an armed guard…

      July 14, 2011 at 10:35

      I had hitherto lived a life, if not blameless, then at least free of ‘Saved’ and ‘Attachment’. Then I clicked, not merely on one but unpardonably on both and now, like a tune that refuses to go away…

      • Worm
        July 14, 2011 at 11:20

        Jonathon, apologies – to erase the horrific images now burnt upon your retinas I suggest scouring your eyes with a wire brush and a mixture of carbolic soap and lye

      Hey Skipper
      July 15, 2011 at 01:05

      Things once seen can never be unseen.

      Thanks ever so much, Worm.

  4. Gaw
    July 14, 2011 at 12:07

    That painting was surely a major inspiration for Ken Dodd?

    July 14, 2011 at 13:36

    All together now – ‘It’s the wrong way to tickle Mary…’

    July 17, 2011 at 12:32

    Ah yes the great Kinkade… He even has theme park – a village specially built to look like his ‘paintings’ – I believe you can buy a cottage there and live the Kinkade life, whatever the hell that is…

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