L. Alma-Tadema

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Classicist Painter

Alma-Tadema's 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 'marbellous painter'. His work shows much of the fine execution and brilliant colour of the old Dutch masters.

From early in his career, Alma-Tadema was particularly concerned with architectural accuracy. 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 was a perfectionist. He worked diligently, often reworking parts of paintings before he found them satisfactory to his own high standards. He was sensitive to every detail and architectural line of his paintings, 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, rushing to finish the paintings before theflowers died. It was this commitment to veracity that earned him recognition.

Alma-Tadema's 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 painters incorporate classical motifs into their works and use Alma-Tadema's unconventional compositional devices such as abrupt cut-off at the edge of the canvas.

Alma-Tadema was among the most financially successful painters 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 as a dream.

The last years of Alma-Tadema's life saw the rise of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism, 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 Picasso.'

His artistic legacy almost vanished. As attitudes of the public in general and the artists in particular became more sceptical of the possibilities of human achievement, his paintings were increasingly denounced. He was declared "the worst painter of the 19th century" by one critic. It was remarked that his paintings were "about worthy enough to adorn bourbon boxes." After this brief period of being actively derided, he was consigned to relative obscurity for many years. Only since the 1960s has Alma-Tadema's work been re-evaluated for its importance within the nineteenth century, and more specifically, within the evolution of English art. In his portraits he employed psychological realism to reveal the sitter's personality.

Alma Tadema Artist

 Expectations 1885 by L. Alma-Tadema

Oil on Panel


Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born in the Netherlands, in the village of Dronrijp, in Friesland in 1836. He was the sixth child of Pieter Jiltes Tadema and Hinke Dirks Brouwer. Her first child died early and the second was Atje, Laurence's sister, for whom he had great affection.

His father died when Laurens was four, leaving his mother with five children: Laurence, his sister, and three boys from his father’s first marriage. His mother had artistic leanings, and decided that drawing lessons should be incorporated into the children's education. He began painting in 1851 and during this time, he did a painting of his sister Artje.

It was intended that the boy would become a lawyer; but in 1851 at the age of fifteen he suffered a physical and mental breakdown. Diagnosed as 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.

The following year he began study at The Royal Academy of Antwerp where he studied with Egide Charles Gustave Wappers  where his chosen subjects were early Dutch and Flemish art. During Alma-Tadema's four years as a registered student at the Academy, he won several respectable awards. Alma-Tadema worked as a studio assistant for three years where he was introduced to books that influenced his desire to portray Merovingian subjects early in his career. He was encouraged to depict historical accuracy in his paintings, a trait for which the artist became known.

As time went on, Alma-Tadema returned to Leeuwarden in 1858 to work in the studio of his painter friend Baron Jan Augst Hendrik Leys. Under his guidance Alma-Tadema painted his first major work: The Education of the Children of Clovis (1861). This painting created a sensation when it was exhibited that year at the Artistic Congress in Antwerp and it laid the foundation of his fame and reputation. Alma-Tadema took criticism from Leys very seriously, and it led him to improve his technique and to become the world's foremost painter of marble and variegated granite. Also this painting was honorably received by critics and artists alike and was eventually became part of the collection of King Leopold of Belgium. Alma-Tadema moved to Brussels where he was knighted into the Order of Leopold.

In 1862 Alma-Tadema started his own career, establishing himself as a classical-subject European artist. In 1863, there were 2 events that changed the course of his life. His mother passed away in January, and in September he married Marie-Paurline Gressin Dumounlin, daughter of a French journalist who resided near Brussels. Alma-Tadema and his wife spent their honeymoon in Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii. He travelled to Italy and developed an interest in depicting the life of ancient Greece and Rome. He became fascinated with the ruins of Pompeii which would inspire much of his work in the coming decades. During this time, he did 3 portraits of Pauline. She bore 3 children, 2 of which lived.

After years of ill health, Pauline died at the age of 32, from smallpox on May 28, 1869, at Schaerbeek, Belgium. Her death left 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. Artje took over the role of housekeeper and remained with the family until 1873 when she married. Then, during the summer Tadema himself began to suffer from an undiagnosable medical problem. He was advised to go to England for another medical opinion.

The impetus to move to London came with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870. With his small daughters and sister Artje, Alma-Tadema arrived in London in September 1870. There he met Laura Theresa Epps, who was seventeen years old, and fell in love with her at first sight. His infatuation with Laura Epps played a great part in his relocation to England. The move proved to be advantageous to the artist's career. 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. He was then thirty-four and Laura was now only eighteen 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. This second marriage was enduring and happy, though childless, and Laura became stepmother to Anna and Laurence. Anna became a painter and Laurence became a novelist. Alma-Tadema's career was one of continued success. He became one of the most famous and highly paid artists of his time. By 1871 he had befriended many Pre-Raphaelite painters. Due to their influence the artist lightened his brushwork, brightened his palette, and varied his hues.

He was known as a classical-subject painter and he became a celebrity for his depictions of the luxurious decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in opulent marbled interiors or against a background of sparkling blue Mediterranean sky and sea. He was greatly admired for his draftsmanship along with his depictions of Classical antiquity. By 1872 Alma-Tadema organised his paintings into an identification system by including an opus number under his signature. Such a system would make it difficult for fakes to be passed off as originals.

During this year he and his wife made a 5 month journey that took them through Brussels, Germany, and Italy. In Italy they were able to take in the ancient ruins again. He purchased several photographs, mostly of the ruins, with archival material and documentation used in the completion of future paintings. In January 1876, he rented a studio in Rome.

He returned to London in April. Tadema was made a full Academician on June 19, 1879, his most personally important award. Three years later a major retrospective of his entire works was organized at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, that included 185 of his pictures. Alma-Tadema's female figures appear as pampered women that have a slightly bored pleasure-seeking attitude, and the composition is balanced by the flowers in bloom.

In 1883 he returned to Rome and, most notably, Pompeii, where he spent enormous hours studying the site giving him an ample source of subject matter. Although Alma-Tadema's fame rests on his paintings set in Antiquity, he also painted portraits, landscapes and watercolours, and made some etchings of himself. Personality Spring 1894, currently in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: depicts the Festival of Cerealia in a Roman Street. One of Tadema's most famous and popular works, it took him four years to complete.

For all the quiet charm and erudition of his paintings, 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 an engaging smile.

In his personal life, Alma-Tadema was outgoing and had a remarkably warm personality. He could be most child-like and yet have the admirable traits of a consummate professional. A perfectionist, he remained extremely diligent, if somewhat obsessive and pedantic worker. A knowledgeable businessman, and one of the wealthiest artists of the nineteenth century, he was as demanding in money matters as he was with the quality of his work. 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's output decreased with older age. 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 Honour 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 International Exposition in Brussels of 1897. In 1899 he was Knighted in England, only the eighth artist from Europe to receive the honor.

During this time, Alma-Tadema was very active with theatre design and production, designing many costumes. He also began to design furniture, based on Egyptian or Pompeian motifs, textiles, illustrations, and frame making. His talents were highlighted by his differse interests. 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. Between 1906 and his death six years later, Alma-Tadema painted less but still produced ambitious paintings.

His wife, Laura, died at the age of 57 on August 14, 1909. The grief-stricken widower outlived his 2nd wife by 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 undergo treatment for ulceration of the stomach. He died there on 28 June 1912 at the age of seventy-six. He was buried in a crypt in St Paul's Cathedral in London.

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 mesmerised by trying to visualise the past, some of which was being recovered through archaeological research.

However, his work fell into a silent abyss after his death, however, since the 1960s has it become evident that it has great importance within nineteenth-century English art.

Alma-Tadema's meticulous archaeological research, 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 Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934), and The Ten Commandments (1956). On May 5, 2011 his painting, The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC, was sold at the auction house for $29.2 million.


Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Dutch / English 1836 - 1912


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