Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema|Spring, 1894|Oil on canvas|J. Paul Getty Museum, 72.PA.3
No doubt using some of Alma-Tadema’s recreations of ancient Rome as his inspiration, James Gurney also convincingly portrays the glowing translucent quality of cut marble in the sunlight. Architectural details reflect Gurney’s dense knowledge of that ancient empire, but instead of reliefs of people and people activities decorating his buildings, Gurney paints reliefs of dinosaurs. You can see them in the spandrels flanking the triumphal arch through which the parade passes, and inside the arch a relief of mixed species echoes the parade passing through the arch. Also in the temple’s pediment decoration you can see a mixture of people-like gods and those in dinosaur form as well. In the foreground of the parade a group of young women in classic garb hold basket trays of flower petals or play a tambourine. They too are beholden to Alma Tadema’s young girls leading the May Day procession in his 1894 painting Spring.
Gurney comfortably borrows from other 19th century academic and orientalist painters as well. The most obvious example is the howdah* (the canopied seat for riding on the back of a large animal like a camel or an elephant) atop the Apatosaurus (was known as a Brontosaurus) in the parade. Or the decorative blanket and saddle baskets balanced on the back of the Triceratops walking next to the young girls and their flower baskets. Notice the bronze sculptural heads of a Triceratops decorating the over-large finial at the end of the foreground wall.
Gurney has well understood the visceral visual appeal of the late 19th century story-telling paintings by Alma-Tadema and other academic artists. By marrying his understanding and his considerable skill as an illustrator/story-teller, James Gurney created a new series of stories and the pictures to make them memorable.
* In ancient Rome, howdah (also houdah) topped elephants were used in battle and their image were applied to decorated coinage in the 1st c. BC. You have also seen a fantasy version of the howdah atop the massive battle elephants in the last battle of the Return of the King movie of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
April 22, 2010
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies
Located at the Norman Rockwell Museum