Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch-born Neo-Classical painter who became widely known for his classical subjects, making stunning depictions of an idealized Roman society. His draughtsmanship was astonishing, and he was a virtuoso, painting skin with incredible smoothness and detail. The painter's fame was quickly overshadowed by Modernist painting, which had Paris as its center, opposing the current Academicism. John Ruskin, considered the most influential critic of his time, called Sir Lawrence "the worst painter of the 19th century". His work was revalued by Hollywood directors, who used his prints as a basis for historical movies that used Rome and Greek scenery or inspiration. By the 1960s, with help from the establishing art market and the new focus given to Victorian art by historians, Sir Alma-Tadema was rediscovered as the great painter that he was.
The Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was initially named Lourens Alma Tadema - Tadema, meaning "son of Tade". His father, Pieter Jiltes Tadema, worked as the notary of Dronryp, and his mother was Hinke Dirks Brouwer. He was born in January 1836 as his mother's third child and his father's sixth.
Along with his family, young Tadema moved to a city near Leeuwarden in 1838 because of his father's work. Pieter passed away shortly after, leaving Hinke with five children to tend to - including the three boys from his previous marriage. Inclined to work with art, Hinke understood its importance and encouraged her children to study drawing.
Although Tadema had contact with the art world as a child, his family wished he'd study law, but in 1851 everything changed. The young fifteen-year-old fell ill - diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the doctors gave him a short time to live. This tragic news inspired him to do what he always wished before his death: to make art. Tadema dedicated his time to painting and drawing while recuperating his health and proving his doctors wrong.
In 1852, now in perfect health, Tadema moved to Belgium, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. He continued at the Academy for four years and was praised by teachers and critics for the works he produced, even receiving many prestigious awards.
He left school by 1855 and began working as an assistant to Louis Lodewijk Jan de Taeye, a teacher and painter who lectured Tadema on art history and historical costumes during the Academy. The Dutch painter eventually became Taeye's studio assistant and was inspired by subjects of the Salian Frankish dynasty, named Merovingian - depicting the scenes in great historical accuracy.
Around 1858, Tadema left for Leeuwarden and then Antwerp to work in the most prestigious art studios in Belgium with Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys. Jan August Hendrik Leys was one of the most respected painters of Belgium. His early production was influenced by the Romanticist style and progressed into historical realism, painting scenes of the 16th century that valued line and subtle colorwork. These traits were fundamental to Tadema's education.
Lawrence painted The Education of the Children of Clovis I under the tutelage of Leys. The work was exhibited in an event in Antwerp and is said to mark the beginning of his fame, later given to the King of Belgium as a gift. After about four years, the artist felt prepared to start his career on his own and left Leys' studio.
Alma-Tadema kept his interest in Merovingian subjects, and his relation to it gave a certain Romantic manner in these works. But since those weren't fashionable choices at the time, he decided to depict Egyptian settings instead. Egyptian Juggler, Egyptian Chess Players, and Thee Egyptian Widow are some of the most remarkable works from this period.
At the beginning of 1863, Lawrence's mother died after spending months as an invalid. Despite this tragic event, Tadema married Marie-Pauline Gressin Dumoulin, with who he had three children - the eldest passed away an infant, while the two daughters, Anna and Laurence, became a painter and a writer, respectively. Marie-Pauline appears in only one of the painter's work, My Studio, holding one of their daughters.
Tadema became interested in Classical subjects after visiting Florence, Naples, Rome, and Pompeii for his honeymoon, reflecting on his production for many years. In 1864, Tadema met the art dealer Ernest Gambart. Gambart managed Tadema's career and organized three shows in which he exhibited in London.
In 1865, the artist had the honor of being knighted at the Order of Leopold in Brussels, where he had moved. Tragically, Pauline passed away after contracting smallpox in 1869, at the age of thirty-two, leaving the widowed artist in a deep depression, and he stopped painting for months.
By the end of 1869, Tadema was visiting the painter Ford Madox Brown in London, where he met a young girl named Laura Theresa Epps. He became madly in love with her, moved to London in 1870, and they got married a year after. Epps was a highly respected painter herself and appeared in Tadema's paintings, like The Women of Amphissa.
Tadema hit the peak of his artistic career, becoming the most well paid and famous painter of his time. In 1871, the artist came in contact with Victorian artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, influencing his work, especially in his color pallet. The painter started to employ lighter colors and a more subtle treatment because of this.
In 1873, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Laura Theresa Epps were named British citizens by Queen Victoria. In the year prior, 1872, Laura and Lawrence took a five-month trip to Europe, where he once again was impressed by the ruins of the classic world. Alma-Tadema acquired a lot of photographic material on ancient ruins that served as references to his paintings. For some time, the painter even rented a studio space in Rome. In 1879, the artist was recognized as an Academician, and in 1882, a large exhibition with his entire work was organized.
In the next year, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema visited Pompeii, which became widely known as a gateway to the classical world, with its stunning ruins standing as a testament to the greatness of a long-gone society. During this visit, the Dutch artist visited the excavations daily, where he created studies on location, expanding his visual catalog.
Due to his age, Alma-Tadema's output was progressively decreasing. Nonetheless, he was still active and exhibiting work. His final years were marked by the institutional embrace he received. The noblest of them was being Knighted by the Royal Family, becoming the eighth artist outside England to receive such an honor. Most of his final years were dedicated to his production with design, decoration, and theater costumes. Notable artworks from this period are Ask Me No More, A Favorite Custom, and The Finding of Moses.
In June 1912, at seventy-six years old, Tadema passed away after undergoing treatment for stomach ulcers, outliving his beloved partner by about three years. Tadema continued painting until his death, concluding his last major artwork in the year of his passing, entitled Preparation in the Coliseum.