A Trail Through Antiquity With Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Dutch-born painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, was born Lourens Alma Tadema, on 8 January, 1836, in Dronryp, in the northern province of Friesland, in the Netherlands. At the age of two, the Tadema family moved to the nearby city of Leeuwarden, where two years later, his father died; leaving his mother with five children: Lourens, his sister, and three boys from his father’s first marriage. It was intended that Alma-Tadema would become a lawyer; but in 1851 at the age of 15, he suffered a physical and mental breakdown through consumption and given only a short time to live. However, he recovered and decided to pursue a career as an artist.

In 1852, Alma-Tadema entered the Royal Academy of Antwerp in Belgium where he studied early Dutch and Flemish art and won several awards. Through his tutors, he was encouraged to depict historical accuracy in his paintings; a trait for which Alma-Tadema became known for, especially his portrayal of marble and variegated granite in his paintings.

After his arrival in England, where he was to spend the rest of his life, Alma-Tadema’s career was one of continued success, becoming one of the most famous and acknowledged, highly paid and rewarded artists of his time. By 1871, he had met and befriended most of the major Pre-Raphaelite painters. Their influence helped brighten his palette; with varied hues and lightened brushwork.

  • In 1872, Alma-Tadema and his wife travelled for five and a half months through Brussels, Germany and Italy. He visited ancient ruins and purchased several photographs, to use as material for the completion of his paintings.
  • Back in England, in 1873, Queen Victoria made Alma-Tadema and his wife the last British Denizens (akin to becoming British citizens).
  • Further trips to Italy occurred in January 1876, where he rented a studio in Rome. The family returned to London in April, visiting the Parisian Salon on their way back.
  • On 19 June, 1879, Alma-Tadema was made a Royal Academician.
  • Three years later, a major retrospective of his 185 artworks was organised at the Grosvenor Gallery in London.
  • The following year, in 1883, Alma-Tadema returned to Rome and Pompeii, where further excavations had taken place since his last visit. 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 critics said they resembled museum catalogues.

Alma-Tadema is considered one of the most popular classical-subject Victorian painters. He is famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures, set in fabulous marbled interiors, or against a backdrop of dazzling blue Mediterranean Sea and sky. Although Alma-Tadema’s fame rests on his paintings set in antiquity, he also painted portraits, landscapes and watercolours, and produced some etchings. The images included here are:

  • The Way to the Temple (1882) [Oil on canvas, Diploma Work accepted 1882]. A priestess of ancient Greece sits before a Doric temple selling votive statuettes while a Dionysian procession of the female followers dance and play music in the temple beyond.
  •  The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) is one of his most famous paintings, based on an episode from the life of the debauched Roman Emperor Elagabalus (Heliogabalus). It depicts the Emperor suffocating his guests at an orgy, under a cascade of rose petals. (The blossoms depicted were sent weekly to Alma-Tadema’s London studio from the French Riviera for four months during the winter of 1887–1888).
  • Also painted that year, Portrait of Miss MacWhirter (1888). The sitter later married the painter Charles Sims. The small full-length artwork was shown in the London Coronation Exhibition in 1911.
  • Lastly, Love’s Jewelled Fetter also known as The Betrothal Ring [panel completed in 1895].

Alma-Tadema was a robust, fun-loving extrovert and a 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 demeanor varied from a consummate professional to the characteristics of a child, with a youthful sense of mischief for practical jokes and sudden bursts of bad temper, coupled with an engaging smile. He was also referred to as being a diligent, perfectionist; and a somewhat obsessive and pedantic worker. Alma-Tadema was an excellent businessman; and one of the wealthiest artists of the 19th century. However, his output decreased with time, partly due to his health; and his obsession with decorating his new home, to which he moved into in 1883. Nevertheless, he continued to exhibit and received many accolades, including the Medal of Honour at the Paris Exposition Universelle (1889), honorary membership of the Oxford University Dramatic Society (1890), and the Great Gold Medal at the International Exposition in Brussels (1897). In 1899, he was knighted in England, (only the 8th artist from Europe to receive this honour). He assisted with the organisation of the British section at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris; and exhibited two works which earned him the Grand Prix Diploma. He also assisted with the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

  • Alma-Tadema was very active with theatre design and production, designing many costumes. He also designed furniture in a Pompeian or Egyptian style. As a grief-stricken widower, Alma-Tadema outlived his second wife by less than three years. In the summer of 1912, his daughter Anna took him to Kaiserhof Spa, Wiesbaden, Germany, to undergo treatment for a stomach ulcer. Alma-Tadema died there on 28 June, 1912, at the age of 76. He is buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Though admired for his draftsmanship and depictions of Classical antiquity, Alma-Tadema’s work fell into disrepute after his death, and only since the 1960s has it been re-evaluated for its importance within 19th Century Victorian British art.

Long may the rose petals fall on the way to the temple.

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Source: Swanson, V. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. London, 1977
This entry was posted in Art, Artists A-Z, Gallery Art, OilPainting, Paintings, Watercolours. Bookmark the permalink.

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