Lawrence Alma-Tadema Biography

(One of the Most Popular Victorian Painters of 19th Century)

Birthday: January 8, 1836 (Capricorn)

Born In: Dronrijp, Netherlands

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM, RA, was a famous Dutch classical-subject painter of special British denizenship, who rose to prominence with works depicting both luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire. Counted among the most popular and financially successful painters of the Victorian era, Alma-Tadema earned repute for his artistic excellence and depictions of Classical antiquity. His distinctive and elaborate paintings depicting anecdotal scenes from the ancient world set in luxurious interiors or against a backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea and sky showcased his brilliance in accurately re-creating ancient architecture and costumes and the finesse with which he depicted textures of marble, bronze, and silk was unparalleled. Although his paintings were increasingly denounced and actively derided following his death, his work has been re-evaluated since the 1960s and presently Alma-Tadema is regarded as a leading classical-subject painter of the 19th century. Several of his paintings have reflected his thorough and careful archaeological research, which includes research into Roman architecture, and these have been used by many Hollywood directors as source material to visualise the ancient world in making their films. Some such notable films include D. W. Griffith's Ben Hur and Cleopatra, and Cecil B. DeMille's remake of The Ten Commandments.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Lourens Alma Tadema

Died At Age: 76


Spouse/Ex-: Marie-Pauline Gressin Dumoulin

father: Pieter Jiltes

mother: Hinke Dirks Brouwer

Born Country: Netherlands

Artists Dutch Men

Died on: June 25, 1912

place of death: Wiesbaden, Germany

Notable Alumni: Royal Academy Of Antwerp

More Facts

education: Royal Academy Of Antwerp

Childhood & Early Life

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born on January 8, 1836, in the Dronryp village in the Netherlands, as the sixth child of Pieter Jiltes Tadema and third child of Hinke Dirks Brouwer. Alma-Tadema’s father, who was the village notary and a respected organist and composer, had three sons from his first wife who was the half-sister of Hinke. Pieter and Hinke’s first child died at an early age and their second child Artje, Alma-Tadema’s sister, was quite close to him.

His family relocated to the city of Leeuwarden in 1838. He lost his father at four years of age following which his mother raised him and Artje along with his three half-brothers from his father's first marriage. His mother, who had a penchant for the art, decided to include drawing lessons into the children's education and thus hired a local drawing master for his older half-brothers. Alma-Tadema took his first art training from this local drawing master.

Although it was decided that Alma-Tadema would pursue a career in law, however he suffered a physical and mental breakdown in 1851 and was diagnosed as consumptive. As it was considered that his days were numbered, he was allowed to spend his time at his leisure. As fate would have it, Alma-Tadema spent his time drawing and painting and gradually regained his health within a year. He later resolved to pursue his career as an artist.

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Life in Belgium & Early Works

Alma-Tadema enrolled at the Royal Academy of Antwerp in Belgium in 1852 and studied early Dutch and Flemish art under the tutelage of noted Belgian painter Gustaf Wappers. During his four years tenure at the Academy, Alma-Tadema won many prestigious awards.

He worked at the studio of Belgian painter Joseph Laurent Dyckmanns from 1855 to 1856 and it was during this time that he started focussing on depicting the low-life of the Netherlands. One of his paintings from this time includes A Poacher returning home after a hunt. During his final years at the Academy, towards the end of 1855, Alma-Tadema worked as assistant of painter and professor Louis (Lodewijk) Jan de Taeye, who taught courses in history and historical costume at the Academy. He respected Taeye a lot and worked with the latter as a studio assistant for three years. He was introduced to books by Taeye that inspired him to depict Merovingian subjects early in his career. It was during this time that Alma-Tadema became inspired to produce paintings with historical accuracy, a feature that became a distinguishing quality of his compositions for which he was widely known for.

In November 1858, he left Taeye's studio and returned to Leeuwarden. Thereafter he joined the studio of noted Belgian painter and printmaker Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys in Antwerp. He assisted Leys with the murals in the Antwerp Town Hall. He painted his first major work, The Education of the children of Clovis, in 1861 under the guidance of Leys. The work was exhibited same year at the Artistic Congress in Antwerp and created a sensation among critics and artists garnering Alma-Tadema his first taste of fame and repute. Although Leys complimented the painting, his comment on the textures of marble in the work which he compared to cheese was taken very seriously by Alma-Tadema who went on to hone his skills and with time developed himself as the leading painter of marble and variegated granite across the world. His realistic depiction of marble led him to earn repute as the marbellous painter. The Education of the Children of Clovis was purchased and given to King Leopold of Belgium.

Till the mid-1860s, Alma-Tadema’s paintings were mostly based on Merovingian themes, however as these subjects lacked wide international appeal, he later switched to depicting the more popular ancient Egypt themes. He left the studio of Leys in 1862 and forged ahead with his own career and with time evolved himself as a prominent classical-subject painter.

He developed interest in depicting the life of ancient Greece and Rome after visiting Italy where he went for honeymoon and spent time in Florence, Naples, Rome and Pompeii. He was particularly fascinated by the ruins of Pompeii which would inspire much of his compositions in the coming decades.

In 1864, he got introduced to noted art publisher and dealer Ernest Gambart, who dominated the London art world during the mid-19th century. Impressed by the work of Alma-Tadema, who was painting the Egyptian Chess Players at that time, Gambert commissioned him to paint twenty-four pictures and also arranged to showcase three paintings of the artist in London at the Annual French and Flemish Exhibition at the French Gallery. The following year Alma-Tadema shifted to Brussels where he was made a Knight of the Order of Leopold. He was also made a Knight of the Order of the Dutch Lion by King Willem III in recognition to his contribution to the art of the Netherlands.

Following his wife’s death in May 1869, Alma Tadema ceased painting for almost four months and later started suffering from a medical problem which doctors in Brussels failed to diagnose. Gambert then advised him to take a medical opinion in England. Accordingly, Alma-Tadema went to London in December 1869.

Life in England

After arriving in London, Alma-Tadema was invited to the home of British painter Ford Madox Brown where he met the 17 years old Laura Theresa Epps and fell in love with her. In July 1870, by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, when Alma-Tadema was forced to leave the continent, he preferred to relocate to London, England, rather than anywhere else, partly because of presence of Laura in London and partly because of the fact that till then his work had consistently been sold only in England. His friend Gambart also felt that his relocation to England would be advantageous for his career.

Alma-Tadema spent the rest of his life in England and with time became one of the most popular and financially successful painters of the Victorian era. His friendship with most of the noted Pre-Raphaelite painters by 1871 to some extent influenced him to brighten his palette and lighten his brushwork.

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In 1872, he came up with a distinctive technique in which he organised all his art works into an identification system by incorporating an opus number under his signature in all his paintings. These included his earlier paintings as well. For instance the painting Portrait of my sister, Artje, made in 1851, was numbered opus I, and the painting Preparations in the Coliseum, which he completed in 1912, a couple of months before his death, was numbered opus CCCCVIII. This system made it hard for forgers to pass off fake paintings as originals.

In 1872, Alma-Tadema and his second wife visited Brussels, Germany, and Italy. He purchased many photographs from ancient sites in Italy, mostly of the ancient ruins. This saw the beginning of his vast collection of folios with archival material that were used to complete several of his future paintings. The following year, the couple were made British Denizens by a grant of letters patent by Queen Victoria in Council. According to the British Home Office, the last denization was granted to the couple.

Alma-Tadema rented a studio in Rome in January 1876. That year he painted one of his most important pictures titled An Audience at Agrippa's. He was made a Royal Academician on June 19, 1879.

In 1882, a major retrospective of his works was organised at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. The following year, he went to Rome and visited Pompeii where further excavations were carried out since his last visit. He furthered his knowledge of daily Roman life by regularly visiting and spending considerable time in studying the excavation site and such research and studies later reflected in his future works. Some of his works included so many objects of ancient Roman life that many started saying that these works resembled museum catalogues.

One of the most famous paintings of the artist is The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) which depicts the young Roman emperor Elagabalus hosting a banquet and suffocating his guests with pink rose petals released from a false ceiling above. The work was commissioned by Sir John Aird, 1st Baronet for £4,000 and as roses were out of season in England, the rose petals were sent weekly from the south of France to Alma-Tadema’s London studio during the four months time he took to complete the painting. Other noted works of the artist includes An Earthly Paradise (1891), Unconscious Rivals (1893), The Coliseum (1896) and The Finding of Moses (1904). Although he was widely known for his works set in antiquity, he also made several portraits, landscapes, watercolours, and some etchings.

He received the medal of Honour at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 held in Paris. The following year, he was elected to an honorary membership of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. He was given the Great Gold Medal at the Brussels International Exposition of 1897. He was knighted in England in 1899 and with this he became the eighth artist from the Continent to receive such honour. He assisted in organising the British section at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 held in Paris and exhibited two of his works there which garnered him the Grand Prix Diploma. He even assisted with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition that was held in 1904. Besides continuing with his painting works, Alma-Tadema also endeavoured into theatre design and production, and designing costumes and furniture during later years of his career.

He saw the emergence of Post-ImpressionismCubism, Fauvism and Futurism during the last years of his life, however disapproved all of them. 

Personal Life

Alma-Tadema lost his invalid mother on January 3, 1863, and same year on September 24, he married Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard, daughter of French journalist Eugène Gressin-Dumoulin, in Antwerp City Hall. Pauline appeared in several oil paintings of the artist. Alma-Tadema also created three portraits of Pauline, the most notable one being My studio (1867). Together they had three children of whom their eldest and only son died of smallpox when he was a few months old. Their two daughters Laurence and Anna, both of whom had artistic leanings, became a novelist and painter respectively and remained single throughout their lives

Paula remained ill for several years and died of small pox on May 28, 1869. Alma-Tadema was so depressed by his wife’s death that he ceased painting for almost four months. Artje, his sister, looked after his two daughters and also managed the household till the time she got married in 1873.

Meanwhile, after he arrived in London with his sister and two daughters in September 1870, he started giving painting lessons to Laura Theresa Epps whom he first met at Ford Madox Brown’s house and fell in love with her at first sight. He proposed marriage to Laura and although initially her father opposed such proposal, the then 34 years old Alma-Tadema married 18 years old Laura in July 1871. Although this marriage proved childless, it was a happy and enduring one, and Laura, who specialised in painting domestic and genre scenes of women and children, took good care of her stepdaughters. Laura died on August 15, 1909, leaving Alma-Tadema grief-stricken.

Anna took Alma-Tadema to Kaiserhof Spa in Wiesbaden, Germany, in the summer of 1912 for treatment of ulceration of the stomach. He passed away on June 28 that year and was interred in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

In 1975, a blue plaque was unveiled to commemorate Alma-Tadema at 44 Grove End Road, St John's Wood, the house where the artist lived since 1886 till his death.

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