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Books: Painting the Classics Volume 57 Number 1, January/February 2004
by Mark Rose

[image] Agrippa, the colleague of Augustus, prepares for an audience with petitioners in this Alma-Tadema painting. The statue of Augustus at right is based on a Roman original. (Museum and Arts Section, East Ayrshire Council) [LARGER IMAGE]

Tired of Picasso and Pollock? Do you crave paintings that show whole, recognizable human beings, perhaps in ancient settings? If so, try R.J. Barrow's Lawrence Alma-Tadema (New York: Phaidon, 2001; $29.95), newly issued in paperback. Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was one of the best painters of such works. His canvases range from classical ladies lounging about or staring into space (lost in thought, or perhaps simply vacant) to pagan religious processions, to historical moments, like Cleopatra meeting Mark Antony. Then there's a dysfunctional family outing to the Colosseum--mom, dad, and junior (Julia Domna, the emperor Septimius Severus, and Geta) watch the games, while the older son, Caracalla, eyes his sibling menacingly (after their father's death, Caracalla didn't rest until he had murdered his brother).

As classicist Barrow points out, Alma-Tadema's paintings reflect his knowledge of Roman and Egyptian monuments and antiquities, gained from travel abroad and studies in museums. Many of the buildings, statues, furnishings, and costumes that provide the settings and lavish details for his paintings can be traced to specific or generic ancient sources. Barrow's Lawrence Alma-Tadema is a good introduction to this artist and his interpretation of antiquity.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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