An embarrassment of riches

The paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema might have been better if he had not been so handsomely rewarded for them
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Revaluation Of 19th-century academic painting is almost a vogue these days. Only a few years ago we could not have imagined such a survey as "The Victorians" in such a place as the National Gallery of Art in Washington (until 11 May). In October the Tate will look at Victorian symbolists. And now the Walker Gallery in Liverpool hosts a retrospective of one of the most academic of 19th-century artists, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Surprisingly, this exhibition comes from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a gallery devoted to a revolutionary who had no success at all in worldly terms. Alma-Tadema was the opposite. He was a painter of an entirely conventional sort, whose art earned him a fortune and a British knighthood.

Alma-Tadema was by origin Dutch, born in Friesland in 1835. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and remained a Dutch artist until he moved to London in 1870. The first wall of pictures at the Walker gives us the character of his work as a young man. Not adventurous, nor even very inventive, but he had a lot of skills. He could paint neatly and accurately, he could do portraiture and architectual detail, he could reproduce the texture of fabrics and so on. Some of the more satisfying pictures from his first period I would call bourgeois rather than academic. But the false distinctions of academicism called, as we see in the large, competent and quite awful painting The Education of the Children of Clovis, which shows a couple of sub-teenage lads practising throwing axes at targets, proudly watched by their mother, Queen Clotilde.

This absurd subject had its relevance in the Low Countries. The painting lauds the Merovingian dynasty, who ruled the northern parts of France and the Netherlands in the fifth century. Clotilde is bringing up her children in an apparently savage manner, but she knows that they must be prepared to wage war on the Burgundians. This was not Alma-Tadema's only Merovingian picture; he thought he had found a rich lode of subject- matter. Indeed he had, for the sight of children playing with axes so delighted King Leopold of Belgium that he bought the painting and hung it in his palace.

In such a way Alma-Tadema leapt from being a middle-class artist to one in the service of royalty. For a little while, he moved to Brussels, won prizes - gold medals and the like - sold everything he painted, travelled in style to Italy, and was one of the most prosperous artists in his part of the world. He also got knighthoods, the first from Leopold and the second from King Willem III of Holland; later, Queen Victoria awarded a third. Was there ever another painter with three knighthoods bestowed by the sovereigns of three countries?

Alma-Tadema was in fact rather an international artist, in that his work shows no marked allegiance to any regional culture. But obviously he liked London, where he lived until his death in 1912. The reasons for his coming to England are pretty obvious. In 1870-71 political chaos in France ruled out a further career in Paris. And Alma-Tadema may have sensed that modernism had started, not only in France but throughout northern Europe, and that this was to be avoided. He had a wonderful dealer, the renowned Ernett Gambert, who sold him well in England; and when he got here he fell in love with an English girl, married her and established a north London household.

There's one painting we may interpret as both an adieu to his homeland and a farewell to the possibility that he might have become a creative artist rather than a frozen pseudo-classicist. Cherries (1873) he painted as his diploma picture when he was elected to an Antwerp artists'society. The excellent catalogue of this retrospective suggests that the comparatively bold handling in this picture, and its private, erotic theme belong to these circumstances. Alma-Tadema was addressing fellow-artists. So his brushwork is for their appreciation, not for his public, who liked perfectionists. And the invitation in the girl's eyes, the cherries and her semi-clothed state, would have told a pleasant story to an Antwerp academy that was also a men's club.

Good though the catalogue is, it evades some problems in Alma-Tadema's art. The first of these puzzles is the nature of his sensuality. Alma- Tadema never painted a moral or a Christian picture in his life, and as soon as he settled in London he began to paint nudes. So he shared in the general liberation of naked subject matter in the later 1870s. This came about about by an implicit contract with classicism. There had been no nudes in the earlier, realist phase of Pre-Raphaelitism. As soon as symbolism took over the movement, all manner of nymphs or girls or goddesses swan into the picture. Alma-Tadema took full advantage of the new nudity, more so than any of his English contemporaries. But his painting was not thereby liberated. Not one sight of a woman could rescue him from the prison of the academic.

Early modern art taught the enlightened that nude painting should be a test of honesty and aesthetic sensuality. Alma-Tadema fails on both counts. I know what was wrong with him. He spent too much time studying. A depressing revelation of this exhibition is the extent to which he was a devoted archaeologist. One room is filled with photographs and other material from his archives on ancient Rome. He used this stuff to fake up his pictures. In canvas after canvas are utter dreams of Roman life and pleasures. Dreams, because no amount of archaeology could substitute for genuine painting.

Though Alma-Tadema was innately gifted, study came between him and art. He seldom shows emotion. The successful pursuit of money and prestige had much to do with his failure. He was also undone by learning. One wishes that he had been ignorant and straightforward, as good amateur painters so often are.

Walker Gallery, Liverpool (0151 207 0001), to 8 June.