Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM, RA (January 8, 1836, Dronrijp, the Netherlands.-
June 25, 1912 Wiesbaden, Germany ) was one of the finest and most distinctive
of the Victorian painters. Dutch born, he moved to London in 1870 and
spent the rest of his life there. He was a classical-subject painter and
became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman
Empire, with langorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against
a backdrop of dazzling blue Mediterranean sea and sky.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born as Lourens Tadema on January 8, 1836,
in the small village of Dronrijp, in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands.
He was the third child of a Mennonite family. His father, Pieter Jiltes
Tadema (1797-1840), was the village notary, his mother, Hinke Dirks Brouwer
(c 1800-1863) was Pieters second wife. Tadema, (meaning Adam-son),
was an old Frisian patronymic ending with the suffix 'ma' - 'son of' while
the names Lourens and Alma belonged to the boys godfather. Laurens
would later changed his name to the more English Lawrence and incorporated,
Alma into his surname in order of having his name appear at the beginning
of exhibition catalogues, under A rather than under T. He did not actually
hyphenate his last name, but it was done by others and this has since
become the convention.
The Tadema family moved in 1837 to the near town of Leeuwarden, where
Pieters position as a notary would be more lucrative. His father
died when Lourens was four, leaving his mother with five children: Laurens
his sister and three boys from his fathers first marriage. His mother
had artistic leanings, and decided that drawing lessons should be incorporated
into the children's education. He received his first art training with
a local drawing master hired to teach his older halfbrothers.
It was intended that the boy would become a lawyer; but in 1851 at he
age of fifteen he was diagnosed consumptive, given only a short time to
live, he was allowed to spend his remaining days at his leisure, drawing
and painting. Left to his own devices he regained his health and decided
to pursue a career as an artist. In 1852 he entered The Royal Academy
of Antwerp where he studied early Dutch and Flemish art, under Egide Charles
Gustave Wappers. During Alma-Tadema's four years as a registered student
at the Academy, he won several respectable awards.
Before leaving school, towards the end of 1855, he became assistant to
the painter and professor Louis (Lodewijk) Jan de Taeye, whose courses
in history and historical costume he had greatly enjoyed at the Academy.
Although de Taeye was not an outstanding painter, Alma-Tadema respected
him and became his studio assistant working with him for three years.
De Taeye introduced him to books that influenced his desire to portray
Merovingian subjects early in his career. He was encouraged to depict
historic accuracy in his paintings, a trait for which the artist became
known. Alma-Tadema left Taeyes studio in November of 1858 returning
to Leeuwarden before settling in Antwerp, where he began working with
the painter Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys, whose studio was one of the
most highly regarded in Belgium. Under his guidance, Alma-Tadmea painted
his first major work: The Education of the children of Clovis (1861).
This painting was a sensation among critics and artists when it was exhibited
that year at the Artistic Congress in Antwerp. It is said to have laid
the foundation of his fame and reputation. Alma-Tadema related that although
Leys thought the completed painting better than he had expected, he was
critical of the treatment of marble, which he compared to cheese. Alma-Tadema
took this criticism very seriously, and it led him to improve his technique
and to become the world's foremost painter of marble and variegated granite.
Despite any reproaches from his master, The Education of the children
of Clovis was honorably received by critics and artists alike and was
eventually purchased and subsequently given to King Leopold of Belgium.
The Merovingian themes were the painter's favorite subject up to the
mid 1860s. It is perhaps in this series that we find the artist
moved by the deepest feeling and the strongest spirit of romance. However
the Merovingian paintings did not have a wide international appeal and
he switch to themes of life in ancient Egypt that were more popular. On
these scenes from Frankish and Egyptian life Alma-Tadema spent great energy
and research. In 1862, Alma-Tadema left Leys's studio and started his
own career establishing himself as a significant classical subject European
The year 1863 was to alter the course of Alma-Tadema personal and professional
life; on January 3 his invalid mother died and on September 24 he was
married, in Antwerp City Hall, to Marie-Pauline Gressin, the daughter
of Eugene Gressin a French journalist of royal descent living near Brussels.
Nothing is known of their meeting, and little of Pauline herself, as Alma-Tadema
never spoke about her after her death in 1869. Her image appears in a
number of oils, though he painted her portrait only three times, the most
notable appearing in My studio (1867). The couple had had three children
in the folllowing years. Their eldest and only son died in childhood.
Their two daughters, Laurence (1864-1940) and Anna (1867-1943), both had
artistic leaning. The former in literature, the latter in art. Neither
Alma-Tadema's and his wife spent their honeymoon in Florence, Rome, Naples
and Pompeii. This, his first visit to Italy, developed his interest in
depicting the life of ancient Greece and Rome, especially the latter since
he found new inspiration with the ruins of Pompeii, that fascinated him
and would inspire much of his work of the coming decades.
During the summer of 1864, Alma-Tadema met Ernest Gambart, the most influential
art dealer and impresario of the nineteenth century. Gambart was highly
impressed with the work of Alma-Tadema, who was then painting: Egyptian
chess players (1865). The dealer recognizing at once the unusual gifts
of the young painter, he gave him an order for twenty-four pictures and
arranged for three of Alma-Tadema's paintings to be shown in London. In
1865, Alma-Tadema relocated to Brussels where he was named a knight of
the Order of Leopold I.
On May 28 1869, Pauline died at Schaerbeek, in Belgium, at the age of
thirty-two, after several years of continuous ill health. Her death left
Alma-Tadema disconsolate and depressed. He ceased painting for nearly
four months. His sister Artje, who lived with the family, helped with
the two daughters then aged five and two.
During the summer, Tadema himself began to suffer from a medical problem
which doctors in Brussels were frustratingly unable to diagnose. Gambart
eventually advised him to go to England for medical opinion. Soon after
his arrival in London in December 1869, Alma-Tadema was invited to the
home of the painter Ford Madox Brown. There he met the seventeen years
old Laura Theresa Epps and he fell in love with her at first sight.
The outbreak of the Franco Prussian War in July 1870 compelled Alma-Tadema
to leave the continent and move to London. His infatuation with Laura
Epps played a great part in his relocation to England and Gambart felt
that the move would be advantageous to the artist's career. In stating
his reasons for the move, Tadema simply said: I lost my first wife, a
French lady with whom I married in 1863, in 1869. Having always had a
great predilection for London, the only place where, up till then my work
had met with buyers, I decided to leave the continent and go to settle
in England, where I have found a true home.
With his small daughters and sister Artje, Alma-Tadema arrived in London
at the beginning of September 1870. The painter wasted no time in contacting
Laura, and it was arranged that he would give her painting lessons. During
one of these, he proposed marriage. As he was then thirty-four and Laura
was now only eighteen, her father was initially opposed to the idea. Dr
Epps finally agreed on the condition that they should wait until they
knew each other better. They married in July 1871. Laura, under her married
name, also won a high reputation as an artist, and appears in numerous
of Alma-Tadema's canvases after their marriage (The Women of Amphissa
(1887) being a notable example). This second marriage was enduring and
happy, though childless, and Laura became stepmother to Anna and Laurens.
After his arrival in England, where he was to spend the rest of his life,
Alma-Tadema's career was one of continued success. He became one of the
most famous and highly paid artists of his time, acknowledged and rewarded.
By 1871 he had met and befriended most of the major Pre-Raphaelite painters
and it was in part due to their influence that the artist brightened his
palette, variegated hues and lighter his brushwork. In 1873, Alma-Tadema
became a naturalized British subject.
The previous year he and his wife began a journey on the Continent that
spanned five and a half months and took them through Brussels, Germany,
and Italy. In Italy they were able to take in the ancient ruins again,
this time he purchased several photographs, mostly of the ruins, which
began his immense collection of folios with archival material sufficient
for the documentation used in the completion of future paintings. In January
1876, he rented a studio in Rome. The family returned to London in April,
visiting the Parisian Salon on their way back.
Among the most important of his pictures during this period was An Audience
at Agrippa's (1876). When an admirer of the painting offered to pay a
substantial sum for a painting with a similar theme Alma-Tadema simply
turned the emperor around to show him leaving in After the Audience.
On June 19, 1879, Alma-Tadema was made a full Academician, his most personally
important award. Three years after this, a major retrospective of his
entire oeuvre was organized at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, including
185 of his pictures.
In 1883, he returned to Rome and most notably, Pompeii, where further
excavations had taken place since his last visit. He spent a significant
amount of time studying the site, going there daily. These excursions
gave him an ample source of subject matter as he began to further his
knowledge of daily Roman life. At times, however, he integrated so many
objects into his paintings that some said they resembled museum catalogues.
One of his most famous paintings is The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)based
on an episode from the life of the infamously debauched Roman Emperor
Elagabalus (Heliogabalus), the painting depicts the pshycopathic Emperor
suffocating his guest at an orgy under a cascade or rose petals. The blossoms
depicted were sent weekly to the artist's London studio from the Riviera
for four months during the winter of 1887- 1888.
Among Alma-Tadema's works of this period are: An Earthly Paradise (1891)
Spring (1894), The Coliseum (1896) and The Baths of Caracalla (1899).
Althuough, Alma-Tadema fame rest on his paintings set in Antiquity, he
also painted portraits, landscapes and watercolors.
For all the quiet charm and erudition of his paintings, Alma-Tadema himself
preserved a youthful sense of mischief. He was childlike in his practical
jokes and in his sudden bursts of bad temper, which could as suddenly
subside into a most engaging smile.
In his personal life, Alma-Tadema was an extrovert and had a remarkably
warm personality. He had most of the characteristics of a child, coupled
with the admirable traits of a consummate professional. A perfectionist,
he remained in all respects a diligent, if somewhat obsessive and pedantic
worker. He was an excellent businessman, and one of the wealthiest artists
of the nineteenth century. Alma-Tadema was as firm in money matters as
he was with the quality of his work.
As a man, Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a robust, fun loving and rather portly
gentleman. There was not a hint of the delicate artist about him; he was
a cheerful lover of wine, women and parties.
Alma-Tadema output decreased with time, due in part to ill health but
also to his obsession for decorating his new home where he moved in 1883.
Nevertheless, he continued to exhibit throughout the 1880s and into the
next decade, receiving a plentiful amount of accolades along the way,
including the medal of Honor at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889,
election to an honorary member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society
in 1890, the Great Gold Medal at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts
in Brussels of 1897, an in 1899 he was Knighted in England, only the eighth
artist from the continent to receive the honor. Additionally, not only
did he assist with the organization of the British section at the 1900
Exposition Universelle in Paris, he also exhibited two works that earned
him the Grand Prix Diploma. He also assisted with the St. Louis Worlds
Fair of 1904 where he was well represented and received.
During this time, Alma-Tadema was also very active with theater design
and production, designing many costumes. He also spread his artistic boundaries
and began to design furniture, often times modeled after Pompeian or Egyptian
motifs, illustrations, textiles, and frame making. His diverse interests
highlight the immense talents of this artist. Each of these exploits were
used in his paintings, as he often incorporated some of his designed furniture
into the composition, and also must have used many of his own designs
for the clothing of his female subjects. Through his last period of creativity
Alma-Tadema continued to produce paintings, which repeat the successful
formula of women in marble terraces overlooking the sea like: Silver Favorites
(1903). Between 1906 and his death, six years later, Alma-Tadema painted
less by still produce ambitions paintings like: The Finding of Moses (1904).
On 15 August 1909 Alma-Tademas wife, Laura, died age fifty-seven.
The grieve stricken widower outlived his second wife for less than three
years. His last major composition was Preparation in the Coliseum (1912).
In the summer of 1912, Alma Tadema was accompanied by his daughter Anna
to Kaiserhof Spa, Wiesbaden, Germany where he was to undergoing treatment
for ulceration of the stomach. He died there on June 28, 1912 at the age
of seventy-six. He was buried in a crypt in St. Pauls cathedral
Alma- Tadema works are remarkable for the way in which flowers, textures
and hard reflecting substances, like metals, pottery, and especially marble,
are painted - indeed, his realistic depiction of marble led him to be
called the 'marbelous painter'. His work shows much of the fine execution
and brilliant colour of the old Dutch masters. By the human interest with
which he imbues all his scenes from ancient life he brings them within
the scope of modern feeling, and charms us with gentle sentiment and playfulness.
From early in his career, Alma-Tadema was particularly concerned with
architectural accuracy, often including objects that he would see at museums
- such as the British Museum in London - into his works. He also read
many books and took many images from them. He amassed an enormous number
of photographs from ancient sites in Italy, which he used for the most
precise accuracy in the details of his compositions.
Alma-Tadema worked assiduously to make the most of his paintings, frequently
reworking one part repeatedly before he found it satisfactory. He was
a perfectionist. He continuously reworked sections of his paintings to
satisfy his own high standards. One humorous story follows that one of
his paintings was rejected and instead of keeping it, he gave the canvas
to a maid who used it as her table cover. He was sensitive to every detail
and architectural line of his painting, as well as the settings he was
depicting. For many of the objects in his paintings, he would depict what
was in front of him, using fresh flowers imported from across the continent
and even from Africa, rushing to finish the paintings before the flowers
died. It was this commitment to veracity that earned him recognition but
also caused many of his adversaries to take up arms against his almost
Alma-Tadema work has been linked with that of European Symbolist painters.
As an artist of International reputation, he can be cited as an influence
on European figures such as Gustav Klimt and Fernand Khnopff. Both incorporate
classical motifs into their works and also use Alma- Tademas unconventional
compositional devices such as abrupt cut-off at the edge of the canvas.
They like Alma-Tadema, also employ coded imagery to convey meaning to
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was arguably the most successful painter of
the Victorian era. For over sixty years he gave his audience exactly what
they wanted; distinctive, elaborate paintings of beautiful people in classical
settings. His incredibly detailed reconstructions of ancient Rome, with
languid men and women posed against white marble in dazzling sunlight
provided his audience with a glimpse of a world of the kind they might
one day construct for themselves at least in attitude if not in detail.
Being a creature of his time, when the Victorian period ended so did
his marketability. By the end of his career, art such as Alma-Tademas
was no longer appreciated as had been the case before. New movements in
art had begun and his imagery, which was thought of as Victorians
in togas, fell out of favor. The end of Alma-Tadema life saw the
rise of: Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism, all of which
he heartily disapproved. As his pupil John Collier wrote, 'it is impossible
to reconcile the art of Alma-Tadema with that of Matisse, Gauguin and
Paintings which once would have sold for 10,000 pounds a few years earlier
were practically impossible to sell at all. In fact, some of his paintings
could have been had for as little as 20 pounds at that time. His artistic
legacy almost vanished. As attitudes of the public in general and the
artists in particular changed for the worse regarding the possibilities
of human achievement, his paintings were increasingly denounced. He was
declared "the worst painter of the 19th century" by John Ruskin,
and one critic even remarked that his paintings were "about worthy
enough to adorn bourbon boxes". After this brief period of actively
being denounced, he was consigned to relative obscurity for many years.
Only in the last thirty years has Alma-Tademas work been reevaluated
for its importance within the nineteenth century, and more specifically,
within the evolution of English art. He is now regarded as one of the
principal classical-subject painters of the nineteenth century whose works
demonstrate the care and exactitude of an era mesmerized by trying to
visualize the past, some of which was being recovered through archaeological
Alma-Tadema's meticulous archaeological researches, including research
into Roman architecture, which was so thorough that every building featured
in his canvases could have been built using Roman tools and methods, led
to his paintings being used as source material by Hollywood directors,
in their vision of the ancient world for films such as D. W. Griffith's
Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934), and most notably
of all, Cecil B. deMille's epic remake of The Ten Commandments (1956).
Indeed, Jesse Lasky Jr., the co-writer on The Ten Commandments, described
how the director would customarily spread out prints of Alma-Tadema paintings
to indicate to his set designers the look he wanted to achieve. In his
director's commentary on the DVD, Ridley Scott cite Alma-Tadema as an
inspiration for the cityscapes in Gladiator.
In the late 1960s, the revival of interest in Victorian painting gained
impetus, and a number of well-attended exhibitions were held. Allen Funt,
the creator and host of the American version of the television show Candid
Camera, was a collector of Alma-Tadema paintings at a time when the artist's
reputation in the 20th century was at its nadir. Funt was robbed by his
accountant, who subsequently committed suicide. He was thus forced to
sell his collection, at Sothebys in London in November 1973. From
this sale, the interest in Alma Tadema was re-awakened. In 1960, the Newman
Gallery firstly tried to sell, then give away, without success, one of
his most celebrated works The Finding of Moses, (1904). The
initial purchaser had paid £5250 for it on its completion! When
the same picture was auctioned at Christies in New York in May 1995, it
sold for £1.75 million.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (2007, January 30). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 00:16, February 2, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lawrence_Alma-Tadema&oldid=104452317
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