Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘Hadrian Visiting A Romano British Pottery’ (1884) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Relatively early in the complex state that was the Roman Empire, a man named Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus), became the fourteenth Emperor of Rome in 117 CE. He inherited a healthy empire from his predecessor Trajan, and built on Rome’s success as a capable administrator in his own right, in all aspects of order and good governance.

To achieve this, one of the first things he did was abandon Trajan’s conquests of Mesopotamia and Assyria, which he considered far too expensive to maintain. With one eye on the treasury, and the other on overseeing the maintenance of the vast empire, he is remembered as the first emperor to extensively travel the empire. But his building projects are arguably his greatest enduring legacy. Apart from his affection for the Greek East, where he dedicated many sites to his tragic young lover Antinous, Hadrian is best remembered for building his long continuous defensive land wall in the north of Britain, simply known as Hadrian’s Wall. However, possibly his greatest achievement was the Pantheon in Rome.

For some twenty years, Hadrian successfully ruled the empire in a state of relative peace until his death (of natural causes) in 138 CE. (To his credit, he left the empire in the safe hands of Antoninus Pius, who continued Hadrian’s peaceful foreign policy.) During that time, as already briefly mentioned, Hadrian travelled the vast empire to satisfy his curiosity. He visited the length and breath of the empires regions and cities inspecting not only its military defences but the private affairs of ordinary Roman citizens. 

In the history painting Hadrian Visiting A Romano British Pottery (1884) by Dutch painter, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Hadrian appears in a very rare portrait (and scene) on his first tour of the empire. In this extraordinary scene Hadrian has set foot inside a pottery store with his wife Empress Sabina during their visit of Roman Britain in 122 CE. He is greeted by the pottery maker and it appears like they are in deep conversation, while Hadrian’s wife holding a bouquet of red flowers (likely a gift to the Empress) also seems interested in the vase being shown to her. With so much detail and colour in this scene, you also cannot escape a glimpse of the blue sky outside, the amazing detail of the wall and floor mosaics and the pottery and wares on the shelves.

Interestingly, Alma-Tadema, who made several visits to Italy during his lifetime, had painstakingly sketched and photographed archeological artefacts like pottery to use as a guide for this painting (and others). Moreover the likeness of Hadrian and his wife were apparently based on portrait busts from various museums in Rome which Alma-Tadema had frequented.

It’s fair to say very few artists have managed to depict Hadrian in paintings. When you compare Emperor Hadrian to the likes of Augustus, Caesar and Constantine, he is no where to be found on oil canvases. Kudos to Alma-Tadema for at least trying to balance the ledger with his humble representation of one of Rome’s greatest emperors. 

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This painting appears in the public domain.

2 comments on “History Painting: ‘Hadrian Visiting A Romano British Pottery’ (1884) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

  1. A great article Robert. It’s too bad that more Roman emperors (not to mention kings, Prime Ministers and Presidents of countless other nations through the centuries) weren’t peace-loving and forward-thinking like Hadrian, but that’s a subject for another discussion. I love the works of Alma-Tadema, one of my favorites being his masterpiece ‘Spring’.

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