Born Lourens Tadema (Alma being his middle name) in Dronryp, Friesland, to Pieter Tadema, a notary, and his second wife Hinke Brouwer - from an early age Alma-Tadema showed artistic ability and the beginnings of his highly methodical and exacting nature as demonstrated in his subsequent paintings. He only adopted the now familiar form of his name after moving to London in 1870.
At the age of 16 Alma-Tadema enrolled at the Antwerp Academy where he studied under Gustav Wappers and Nicaise de Keyser, both exponents of the Romantic movement in art. Later he became an assistant to the historical painter Baron Hendryk Leys whilst living in the house of an archaeologist, Louis de Taye. From these two men he began to develop his interest in history and archaeology, which was further developed by contact with the German Egytologist, Georg Ebers. He assisted Leys in painting historical murals in Antwerp's Town Hall.
His early works depicted the history of the Merovingian dynasty, rulers of Gaul from the 6th to 8th centuries AD. However, having visited the International Exhibition in London in 1862, he became inspired by the Elgin Marbles and Egyptian artefacts in the British Museum, leading him to turn ever more towards Egyptian themes.
In 1863 he married a French woman, Marie Pauline Gressin de Boisgirard, and they honeymooned in Italy where he encountered the newly-found ruins of Pompeii. So fascinated was he by the Roman remains with their abundance of marble that very quickly ancient Roman subject matter came to the fore in his paintings.
The Tademas soon moved to Paris where Lourens entered into a long-term contract with the well-known art dealer Ernest Gambart, an influential man with connections throughout Europe. Within a short time he relocated his studio to Brussels.
But in the 1860s, tragedy struck: his only son dying of smallpox in 1865 and his wife in 1869, leaving him to care for his two daughters Anna and Laurence. But fortune in his career followed swiftly and, in the same year, two of his paintings - A Roman Art Lover and Phyrric Dance - were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.
So well were his paintings received overall that, upon visiting England the same year to see a doctor, and in part due to the possible Prussian invasion of France, Alma-Tadema moved his home to London in 1870.
The following year he married his seventeen-year-old pupil, Laura Epps, a doctor's daughter and member of a then well-known family of cocoa manufacturers. In 1873 he became a naturalized British citizen, at the same time consciously joining his middle name, Alma, to his surname. The hyphenation was in fact done by others and this has since become the convention. It also had the fortuitous 'side-effect' of elevating his name to a top position in alphabetical catalogues!
Soon after marriage, the Tademas moved from a rented home in Camden Square to Townshend House, near Regent's Park. Elegant and cosmopolitan in decor, their home soon became a popular venue for gatherings of fellow artists. Fame and prosperity soon followed and in 1876 Alma-Tadema became an Associate of the Royal Academy, being elected to a full Royal Academician in 1879. The Grosvenor Gallery staged an exhibition of 287 of his paintings in 1882. He had become one of the most famous painters in Britain.
'Building' on this success, Alma-Tadema drew up plans for a more spectacular home - the building for which he found in St John's Wood. In fact it was the former home of French artist James Tissot that had been abandoned after the death of his mistress, Kathleen Newton. It was then fairly modest but had a number of classical features that appealed to him (such as the famous colonnade beside a garden pond, which featured in several of Tissot's canvases). However Alma-Tadema made it into almost a palace, designing every detail himself - from the weather vane in the form of an artist's palette and the doorway modelled on one from Pompeii, to the rainspouts in the form of lions' heads. The hall was lined with panels painted by fellow artists and the enormous galleried and marble-floored studio was crowned with a polished aluminium dome - the brightness of the light it reflected noticeably affected his paintings from then on.
Both of his London homes were famous for their extravagant parties, often in fancy dress - the artist himlself having a predilection for dressing as Nero - and where music was always a feature. Distinguished guests included personalities such as Tchaikovsky and Enrico Caruso.
Alma-Tadema received awards and honours from around the world, although notably not from his own country of birth - including a knighthood from Britain in 1899 followed by the prestigious Order of Merit in 1905. His clients included members of the British Royal family and the Russian Imperial Family - he was in fact a noted Society portraitist. Indeed approximately 60 of his 400 plus paintings are commissioned portraits of sitters ranging from the British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to the Polish pianist and Prime Minister Paderewski.
By the time of his death in 1912 at the German spa of Wiesbaden, he was so famous an artist that the British 'establishment' saw fit for him to be buried in St Paul's Cathedral. Soon afterwards, his famous house and contents were sold - the house being converted into apartments, leaving few of the splended architectural details.
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Learn more about Lawrence Alma-Tadema and find other biographical writing by Bianca Tavares at Vintage Posters.
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