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Alma-Tadema, Listening to Homer

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, oil on canvas, 36-1/8 x 72-1/4 inches / 91.8 x 183.5 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: I am there. I'm sitting on the cool marble. I'm listening. I'm rapt. Female: I want to be there! Male: (chuckles) So do I! Female: Alma-Tadema has captured the beautiful light and the sea and this fabulously cool marble on this lovely summer day. Who doesn't want to be there? Male: What an incredible fantasy. Look at that marble, the way the light moves through that stone. If you look under the seat you can actually see the intense sunlight warming that marble and you can feel its crispness, you can feel the edge as you're sitting there. Female: Alma-Tadema, and we're looking at his painting, A Reading from Homer from 1885, was a master at capturing textures; not just the marble but also the fur that the figure wears in the foreground. Male: Or the flesh. Look at his feet. Female: He could really paint. The figure on the right, who's crowned with laurel leaves much like an ancient Greek god, is reading from Homer. He's clearly acting it out in a dramatic way that has his listeners transported to mythic, Homeric Greece. Male: As the young orator is recalling mythic Greece and transporting his listeners, Alma-Tadema, the artist, is transporting his viewers, is transporting us, and transporting the Victorians for whom this was made. Female: They've put down their musical instruments. They look as though they're seeing past him and they're in their own imaginations. Male: Look at the way that the young couples' hands intertwine. It's so delicate and so graceful. Female: Their hands were clasped, but they're so taken with the story that's being told that they're almost forgetting that their hands are entwined. Male: Here's an academic artist that is truly a brilliant technician, that is truly a brilliant craftsman. Here's an artist who was enormously successful professionally, and whose paintings won not only numerous awards but fetched very high prices. Yet this is also an artist who the 20th century looked down on. Female: An art historian said that Alma-Tadema was, in the highest sense, a superficial artist. That's because I think Alma-Tadema was very much giving the Victorians an art which flattered them, which made them feel good. In the 20th century, we value art that challenges us, not that flatters us. It's interesting to think about how this flattered the Victorian audience that it was made for. Male: I would imagine that the Victorians themselves looked back to ancient Greece as a source of their greatness; that they were, in some ways, an inheritor of the way in which the Greeks had privileged culture, had privileged the arts. Female: That's right, and I would add ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Any Victorian looking at this painting would have identified with watching a reading or a theater performance and thinking about their own appreciation for the arts. Male: This was a moment in history when Britain is an empire and it is collecting works of art and works of culture from around the world, and especially from Greece. The Elgan marbles, the great sculptures of the Parthenon are brought to London and put on display. In a sense, what Alma-Tadema is doing is bringing those marbles back to life. Female: Instead of showing us the ancient Athenians involved in some kind of heroic battle, we see them at a moment of leisure appreciating the arts. Everyone wants to be the heir to ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and the Victorian empire was no different. Male: It's naturalism, it's realism is so high pitched that it is absolutely believable, and yet it is in so many ways much more a reflection of the 19th century than it is of the 5th century B.C. (jazzy music)