Phidias – Masters Of Painting

” YES, rise, fair mount ! the bright blue heavens to kiss, Stoop not thy pride, august Acropolis! Thy brow still wears its crown of columns gray, Beauteous in ruin, stately in decay. Two thousand years o’er earth have spread their pall, Not yet, thy boast, Minerva’s shrine shall fall : In spite of rapine, fire and war’s red arm, Enough remains to awe us and to charm ; Glory and Phidias’ shade the relic keep, Shield as they watch, and strengthen as they weep. The Doric columns, wrought from fairest stone, Severe but graceful, round the cella thrown, The lofty front, the frieze where sculptures shine, The long, long architrave’s majestic line, Dazzle the eye with beauty’s rich excess, O’erpower the mind by too much loveliness.” — NICHOLAS MICHELL

Little is actually known of the life of Phidias, but Alma Tadema’s picture easily convinces us that thus the great sculptor displayed to his friends and patrons his completed handiwork. Phidias himself, standing within the rope barrier, seems to await the favorable verdict of his illustrious protector, Pericles, who confronts him and has at his side the beautiful Aspasia. The young man at the extreme left seems meant for Alcibiades, who has also accepted an invitation to this private view of the frieze of the Parthenon, seen not as we now behold it in the British Museum, but with its match-less figures glowing with the tints just laid upon it by Phidias and his fellow-workers.

For by this work of Alma Tadema’s we are forcibly reminded that the Greeks added color to much of their sculpture. Accustomed as we have been either to the dull whiteness of the antique marble or to the clearer white of the cast, it is with reluctance that we accept this conclusion, but it appears to be inevitable. Professor Mahaffy says :

” One cannot but feel that a richly colored temple — pillars of blue and red, gilded friezes and other ornaments on a white marble ground and in white marble framing— must have been a splendid and appropriate background under Grecian skies. . . . But if we imagine all the surfaces and reliefs in the temple colored for architectural richness’ sake, we can feel even more strongly, how cold and out of place would be a perfectly colorless statue in a centre of this pattern. For say what we will, the Greeks were certainly, as a nation, the best judges of beauty the world has yet seen. And this is not all. The beauty of which they were evidently most fond was beauty of form, harmony of proportions, symmetry of design. They always hated the tawdry and the extravagant. So with their dress, so with their dwellings. We may be sure that, had the effect of painted statues and temples been tawdry, there is no people on earth which would have felt it so keenly and disliked it so much.”

In connection with this, it may be pointed out that the light could only illuminate this frieze from below, and it would be all but impossible to see it properly from the ground. Hamerton says that the Greeks probably looked upon the Parthenon frieze as merely a band of decoration which did not need to be looked at closely.

Phidias, to whose genius is universally credited the sculptures of the Parthenon, though it is impossible that they could all have been formed by his hand alone, has been made the subject of an interesting and suggestive comparison with Michael Angelo by Professor Waldstein. This authority says:

It is above all to Phidias and his works that Winckelmann’s perfect summing up of the attributes of Greek works of art applies, noble naivete and placid grandeur.’ Coupled with all the grandeur and width is that most striking feature of Greek art, the simplicity which adds to the silent greatness and gives a monumental rest to these gods of stone. It arises from that unreflective, unanalytical, unintrospective attitude of mind which drives it simply to do what it feels and thinks with serene spontaneity of action, without analyzing its own power, not ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.’ On this account Phidias is the type of the plastic mind among all artists and sculptors, and this simplicity and unreflectiveness can best be appreciated when we compare him with Michael Angelo, who, though possessed of the greatness, lacked the simplicity. The thoughts and conceptions of Michael Angelo preceded and ran beyond his active and executive power. This manifests itself not only in his life, not only in the confession of his thoughts in his sonnets, but also in his works. Every one of them tells us the story of struggle ; and though so much is expressed, we feel, what he felt so strongly, how much more remains unexpressed, in the labyrinthine recesses of his ever active brain. Frequently his heart failed him at the impotency of his sluggish hands, the work remained unfinished, the hand dropped with disgust and depression at the sight of the inane gulf that lies between the thinking and feeling, and the doing and creating. His greatness then sought an outlet in numerous spheres of thought and action separately followed and intermingled. When sculpture failed to express all that he felt, he called to aid the pictorial element, with which he transfused his plastic works, and when painting was too weak, he strengthened his pictures with plastic forms, spreading over all his works a dim veil of deep thought and solemn poetry. Of this the works of Phidias have nothing. Grand or sublime or awful as they may be, they are ever serene, they have coupled with all their greatness the truly Greek element of grace, in which the works of Michael Angelo are sometimes wanting.”

The many canvases produced by the illustrious Tadema include several dealing, like the “Phidias,” with episodes of artist life. “Antistius Labeon,” a Roman amateur, showing some of his productions to friends, is one; “The Sculptor’s Model” another ; a third is “Architecture in Ancient Rome;” and there still remain the “Visit to the Studio” and “The Sculptor;” while not greatly differing in theme from these are the famous “Picture Gallery” and “Sculpture Gallery.” Although some of the artist’s earlier pictures are of scenes from Merovingian history, his talent has mostly occupied itself in reproducing the life of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The land of the Pharaohs suggested “The Death of the First Born” and “The Mummy;” from Hellas came “Sappho” and “The Pyrrhic Dance ; ” and the Imperial City contributed “A Roman Emperor ” and “An Audience at Agrippa’s.”

No less than six pictures by this artist are in the famous Walters collection in Baltimore, and they include the ” Sappho ” and the ” Roman Emperor.” Mr. Henry G. Marquand, of New York, owns Alma Tadema’s ” Reading from Homer.”

Leaving his native Holland in 1870, Alma Tadema, then about thirty-three, went to London, which city has since been his home, and where he lives with his English wife (herself a talented artist), in a superbly beautiful house built and decorated from his own designs. Elected a Royal Academician years ago, and knighted by Queen Victoria in 1899, he enjoys many other honors, which the painter of ” Phidias ” has worthily won. ‘