Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)
Born in Holland, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema lived in England from 1870 onwards. He was a classical painter who was influenced by the subject matter of Antiquity. One of the great masters of English figurative painting, he was sometimes referred to as the painter of 'Victorians in togas'. In any event, his paintings were so popular that prints could be found in a great many Victorian middle-class households. Yet, within a few years of his death, Alma-Tadema was largely forgotten, at least until recently. Trained in Amsterdam, he began by copying examples of 17th Century Dutch Realist genre painting, and then turned to subjects from Merovingian history (c. 5th century). Later he turned to luxurious scenes of Antiquity, occasionally Egyptian but mainly Classical, and it is for these paintings that he is recognised. Popular examples of his works include Roman Flower Market (1868, City of Manchester Art Gallery); The Tepidarium (1881, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral, UK) and A Favourite Custom (1909, Tate Gallery, London). Technically brilliant, Alma-Tadema's paintings modernised the historical and domestic genre. Especially popular were his erotic paintings of female nudes.
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Early Life and Training
Alma-Tadema was born in a small village in Holland in 1836. From an early age he displayed an aptitude and enthusiasm for drawing and painting. In 1851, at the age of 15 he started studying at the Antwerp Academy. At first he was taught by Baron Gustave Wappers (1803-74), a well known Belgian painter and then by Nicaise de Keyser (1813-87), also Belgian and known for his portraits and historical tableaux. In 1856 Alma-Tadema left the Academy, continuing to study art, but also history under the guidance of Louis de Taye, a Professor of Archaeology at the Academy of Antwerp. Alma-Tademas watercolour, Faust and Marguerite (1857, private collection), was painted at this time - a historical subject which de Taye encouraged. In 1859 the artist entered the studio of the painter and printmaker Baron Henri Leys (1815-69), who had also studied under Wappers at the Antwerp Academy. Alma-Tadema assisted Leys with some large frescoes he was creating for the Antwerp Town Hall. While in Ley's studio, he produced several important paintings characterised by their Merovingian subject-matter. They were Education of the Children of Clovis (1861, private collection) and Venantius Fortunatus Reading his Poems to Radagonda (1862, Dordrecht Museum).
Continental Art Period
In 1862 Alma-Tadema quit Ley's studio and
began his art career. The period of time between 1862 to 1870 is called
his Continental period, where he established his European reputation.
His main paintings at this time were Classical, influenced by Egyptian
and Roman art. In 1863, he married and
travelled with his new bride to Italy to study the antiquities. It was
in the ruins of Pompeii in particular that he found inspiration for a
decade's worth of paintings. Examples of pictures from this period include:
The Roman Flower Market (1868, City of Manchester Art Gallery)
and A Roman Family (1868, private collection). He also completed
the occasional portrait, as in Dalou, His Wife and His Daughter
(1876, Musee d'Orsay, Paris). In general, his paintings display outstanding
draftsmanship and mastery of colour. In 1864 he met Ernest Gambart (1814-1902),
an art publisher and dealer who dominated the London art world in the
middle of the 19th century. Gambart produced fine prints of some of Europe's
best known artists including J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851),
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910),
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82),
Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), William
Powell Frith (1819-1909), and John
Everett Millais (1829-96). Gambart had seen Alma-Tadema's painting
Chess Players (1865) and was so impressed ordered 24 paintings
and arranged for another 3 to be shown in London. In 1865 Alma-Tadema
returned to Brussels where he was named Knight of the Order of Leopold.
In 1869 Alma-Tademas wife died of smallpox, and on the advice of Gambart, he moved for a rest to England. On his arrival, he stayed with the artist Ford Madox Brown, and shortly was introduced to 17 year old Laura Theresa Epps: it was love at first sight. They married in 1871, and this confirmed his decision to remain in England. He would go on to become one of the most highly paid artists of his time. As a result of meeting members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), his palette brightened and his brushstroke became looser. In 1872 he introduced an identification system into his painting, etching Roman numbers under his signature to dissuade forgeries. His Portrait of the artist's sister, Artje painted in 1851 was number Opus 1, while his final painting Preparations in the Coliseum was numbered Opus CCCCVIII. In the late 1870s, Alma-Tadema travelled to Italy with his new wife, and immersed himself in documents and studies of ancient Rome. An important painting from this time was An Audience at Agrippa's (1876, Dick Institute, Kilmamock). In 1879 he was elected full member of the London Royal Academy of Arts, a reward he personally treasured. In 1879 the Grosvenor Gallery in London held a retrospective exhibition, displaying 185 of his paintings.
In 1881, Alma-Tadema painted The Tepidarium (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral, UK). This exquisite painting is charged with eroticism, a quite uncommon feature in Victorian art. To wealthy Englishmen, his paintings were a relief from the drabness of London life, with its strict social rules and conducts of dress. In this painting a lady is lying naked on a marble couch; a luxurious animal fur part covers the marble. Next to the lady is a Tepidarium, a Roman warm bath. Her face is flushed and she part-covers herself with an ostrich feather. In the other hand she holds a strigil, a bronze tool used by the Romans to scrape oil from the body. The sensuality of the painting is heightened by the contrasting surfaces of marble, fur, silk cushions and white skin. The artist's virtuoso technique enabled him to paint surfaces like marble with extraordinary skill. There is little action in Alma-Tadema's paintings; his women have a bored pampered look.
Other Popular Paintings
Another famous painting is his Roses of Heliogabalus (1888, private collection). Based on the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, the painting depicts a scene where the Emperor suffocates his guests at an orgy under a deluge of rose petals. The roses needed for the actual painting of the picture were delivered weekly from France, for four months while the artist painted the picture. Other popular paintings included An Apodyterium (1886, private collection, Canada), Spring (1894, J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu), The Coliseum (1896, private collection) and The Baths of Caracalla (1899, private collection, UK).
Mature Art Career
Alma-Tadema's output decreased as he became older, but he continued to paint and exhibit almost to the end. In 1899 was knighted by Queen Victoria and the same year he received a medal of Honour at the Paris Exposition Universelle. He organised the British pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and his own two exhibits earned him the Grand Prix Diploma. He also assisted with the 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair. Some of his later paintings included: Silver Favourites (1903, City of Manchester Art Galleries); The Finding of Moses (1904, private collection); Caracalla and Geta, Bear Fight in the Coliseum: AD 203 (1907, private collection) and Favourite Custom (1909, Tate Gallery, London). Alma-Tadema died in 1912 and was buried in a crypt in St Paul's Cathedral.
Alma-Tadema's paintings have been aligned with the Symbolism movement, and influenced artists such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921). His great skill at handling surfaces like metals, potteries and marble led him to be called the 'marbelous painter'. and he influenced numerous contemporaries including John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). However, quite soon after his death, Alma-Tadema fell out of fashion. Within a few years, paintings of his, which used to sell for £10,000 when he was alive, were being traded for as little as £20. His artistic legacy appeared to have vanished overnight. The art critic John Ruskin even declared him the 'the worst painter of the 19th century'. It has only been in the last 3 decades that Alma-Tadema has been 'rediscovered' within the context of exhibitions held to revive English art. In 1960 the Newman Gallery tried to sell one of his most celebrated works, The Finding of Moses (1904) for £5,250 and when no purchaser could be found, they tried to give it away. In 1995, the same picture was sold by Christie's for £1.75 million. Since then, there has been a huge resurgence of interest in his work, which hangs in some of the best art museums in Europe.