Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was one of the masters of Victorian painting. A fascination for classical and mythological subjects inspired incredibly exquisite renderings of marble, silk and precious metals reminescent of the ancient Roman Empire in its luxury and decadence.
Lourens Tadema was born January 8, 1836, in the small village of Dronrijp, Friesland in the Northern Netherlands, the son of notary Pieter Jiltes Tadema and his wife Hinke. The boy received his godfather's name, Lourens Alma, later translated to Lawrence.
The family moved to the nearby town of Leeuwarden in 1837, where they lived for three years until the death of Lourens’ father. Hinke was left to raise her five children alone. As a young child, Lourens displayed a talent for art and received his first art training with local drawing master Cornelius Wester. While his mother adopted art as a hobby, neither she nor his Godfather encouraged it as a career. Although a future in law had been already mapped out for him, his passion for art never wavered. He studied independently with art books that he purchased himself.
At fifteen, Lawrence Alma-Tadema was diagnosed consumptive and was given only a short time to live. His mother and Godfather decided to allow him to devote whatever remaining time he had to study art. In 1852, feeling somewhat better, he entered The Royal Academy of Antwerp (the City of Rubens), where he studied early Dutch and Flemish art under a number of noted practitioners of the Romantic school. Due to his fascination with archeology, he began to incorporate this interest into the Ancient World to form a style all his own.
In 1855, Lawrence Alma-Tadema became the assistant to painter and former history professor Louis (Lodewijk) Jan de Taeye who, as his mentor, directed the artist towards his early Merovingian subjects, always encouraging the portrayal of history with archaeological accuracy. Three years later upon his return to Leeuwarden, Lawrence produced his first major work: ‘The Education of the children of Clovis’ (1861), exhibited at the Artistic Congress in Antwerp.
In 1863, he married Marie Pauline Gressin de Boisgirard who bore him three children; a son and two daughters. During their honeymoon in Italy, he visited the ruins of Pompeii, an adventure that greatly inspired paintings depicting ancient Roman Civilization.
The couple moved to Paris, where ‘Pauline’ was the subject for many of Lawrence’s paintings. He entered into a contract with well-known art dealer Ernest Gambart, who used his connections throughout Europe to promote the artist’s work.
In 1865, Lawrence Alma-Tadema saw the death of his only son from a smallpox epidemic and the death of his wife four years later in 1869. He made the decision to return to London where he began teaching art while attempting to establish his career as an artist. Loneliness sparked an affair with seventeen year old student Laura Epps, whom he married in 1871. While his work up to that point had been portrayed by some as having little meaning or significance, he silenced the critics with a portrait of his two daughters entitled, ‘This is our Corner’ (1873). It was during this time that the artist changed his name to Lawrence Alma Tadema (English translation).
Lawrence Alma-Tadema found success in London. His work gained popularity amongst those in the social upper middle class. In 1883, the family moved from Regents Park to the house in St John’s Wood, formerly occupied by Tissot and his mistress Kathleen Newton. They remodeled the house and used it to entertain people of great importance such as, Tchaikovsky and the Prince of Wales.
In 1899, he was knighted at the Queen Victoria’s eightieth birthday celebration and awarded the Order of Merit in 1905. Lady Laura Alma-Tadema, made him a widower in 1909, during the most prosperous time of his career, a period when his clients included members of the British and Russian Royal families. Lawrence Alma-Tadema continued to paint, but his output decreased, and three short years later he died in Weisbaden, Germany on the 25th of June 1912, and was buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral.