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United Kingdom • 1836−1912
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (January 8, 1836, Dronryp, the Netherlands - June 25, 1912, Wiesbaden, Germany) was a British artist of Dutch origin who created paintings on historical subjects. He was considered to be one of the most popular and highly paid masters of the Victorian era.

Features of the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Alma-Tadema had always considered himself to be an artist of the historical genre. When he was a student, he drew subjects for his paintings in the stories of the Merovingian period - the first dynasty of the Frankish kings in the history of France, as well as in the stories of ancient Egypt. Out of 408 of his canvases, the artist depicted antiquity at least in 300 of them, but the subjects of his paintings were the artist's contemporaries - Victorians, set in antique scenery. Perhaps, that was what caused the popularity of Alma-Tadema among both critics and the public (in addition to, of course, the artist's most accurate performance of the antique details).

There were also enough titles and awards in his life. In 1899, he was awarded the knighthood - an exceptional case for the foreign artists: only Rubens and van Dyck were given such honor before. And in 1904, the artist received the Order of the British Empire.

Alma-Tadema was often opposed in a rather aggressive way to “poor and starving” artists who had become a part of eternity, because, firstly, he wasn’t starving. And secondly, from some point of view, as a compensation for lifelong well-being, he was forgotten quite quickly right after his death - almost immediately after the memorial posthumous exhibition.
To justify Alma-Tadema, one can say that, firstly, he nearly died in his childhood and lived for quite a while under the shadow of the expectation of an imminent death; and secondly, his popularity and “aristocratic demeanor” were there because of the fact that Alma-Tadema, like no one else, knew the features and details of the eras he portrayed. He was fond of history, architecture and archeology (he participated in excavations), and, unlike many contemporaries, he was never mistaken in the fact that he depicted.

There were a lot of rumors spreading about him and talks of not so kind nature, to say the least. For instance, people said that Alma-Tadema was drawing his subjects from photographs, and so that the viewer would not have guessed anything, he was adding something “from himself”. And he also numbered his paintings - what a pettiness! And what a help to current researchers...

Famous paintings by Alma-Tadema: “The Roses of Heliogabalus”, “The Baths of Caracalla”, “The Finding of Moses”, “Anthony and Cleopatra”, “Advantageous Position”, “Self-portrait”, “The Long-awaited Steps”, “A Harvest festival”, “ The Honeymoon”, “Summer Offering”, “Courtship the Proposal”, “ The Voice of Spring”, “Egyptian Juggler”.

The childhood of a notary’s son

The artist lived a rather long life considering the average life expectancy of those times: 76 years. Born in the Netherlands, Lawrence Alma-Tadema studied in Belgium, and after that he moved to Britain in 1870, where he received British citizenship three years later by the personal order of Queen Victoria.

Having been born in the village of Dronryp, in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands, he became the sixth child in a village notary’s family. Lawrence and Alma were the names given to him by his godfather. However, the name Alma after moving to foggy Albion became a part of the family name. The contemporaries claimed that Lawrence had taken that move in order to blow his own trumpet in the catalogs of exhibitions being at the top of the lists.

It was the artist’s mother who offered to teach painting to children - his father died when he was four years old. At first, together with his brothers, Lawrence was engaged in painting with a local artist, later he began to study independently according to the treatise of Leonardo da Vinci, written specifically for the young colleagues. At the same time, the mother decided to make her son a lawyer, and without much hesitation or resistance, he went to Leeuwarden High School, where he became interested in history, and then - archeology and architecture of antiquity.

They say that an artist always chooses a genre for himself, but not in the case of Tadema: his favorite historical genre appointed an artist by itself.

Diagnosis is the key to perfectionism

At the age of 15, Tadema was diagnosed with the fatal “consumption” diagnosis at that time. Thinking that he was about to die, Tadema redoubled his efforts to master the material, both historical and artistic. The first educational institution in which Tadema truly showed his talent was The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. There he got to know what it was like to be successful. He received many awards and was considered one of the most gifted and diligent students. Then he attended courses in history and historical costume under the leadership of Professor Louis de Taye - then the perfectionist character of the future artist showed up. Tadema mercilessly destroyed all the unsuccessful sketches and drawings, thus after his death very few preliminary sketches and artworks were found.

A year later, at the age of 16, Tadema entered the Art Academy in Antwerp. There, his mentor was a Belgian artist, a representative of romanticism, Baron Hendrik Leys. In Belgium, Tadema was at the age of 26, and that happened due to his marriage to the daughter of a French writer living there. The honeymoon in Rome and Pompeii was an important milestone in the artist’s work. Since then, the main subject of his paintings had become antiquity.

Marie Pauline Gressin de Boisgirard often posed for her spouse - by studying the artist’s works, Marie’s repeated outlines were easily seen. The couple had three children, but that did not provide the master with a line of heirs over the centuries: their only son died in childhood, and the daughters did not marry until the end of their lives.

Great Britain of Tadema

Acquaintance with Ernest Gambar, a famous art dealer of that time, brought to Tadema’s life even more awards, orders, prizes and, of course, money. Already then, at 27, he became a successfully exhibited and sold artist. However, art historians and critics began to consider it a success only when he moved to England.

He didn’t get there on a whim, but because of illness - being a widower by that time (the 32-year-old wife had died of smallpox), Tadema came to England in an attempt to find out a diagnosis that Belgian doctors could not make. Since then, all further epochal achievements in the fate of the master had British “residence”. There he met Laura Theresa Epps and married the second time. There, partly thanks to his second wife, he got into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood environment. There, the master became an Academician at the Academy of Arts. The heyday of his career reached its highest point there. He was also elected an honorary member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and a full member of The Royal Watercolour Society, although he painted relatively little in watercolor. The color of his works became brighter and brighter. Tadema bought his house there as well, which later became a historical landmark in London.

About the second wife of the painter, Laura Epps, who received much more fame precisely under her last name - Laura Alma-Tadema, it should certainly be said: she was also an artist but, first and foremost, his student. She used to pose for him a lot - thus, we can see her on the canvas “The Women of Amphissa”, and the portrait of Laura was also well-known – the painting called “Interrupted”. She and Tadema had an age difference of 17 years, and at first Laura’s father was completely against that marriage. However, Tadema managed to appease him with a portrait of the Epps family.

The blast wave...

There was a completely inexplicable phenomenon surrounding Tadema, in terms of atheism and the laws of physics: he was pursued by explosions of chemicals and he had to deal with the consequences. The first incident took place in 1866. The cause of the explosion was a gas leak in the house of the eminent customer of Tadema – Gambar. That ended up in a nervous shock to the artist’s first wife, which became an injury for the rest of her life. In 1874, the explosion of a barge with gunpowder on the Regency Canal in London destroyed the house of Tadema - both he and his family were lucky at that moment to be in another place. The artist’s daughters from his first marriage were less fortunate: they were thrown out of the windows by a blast wave, but it didn’t bring serious injuries. Also, none of the paintings were affected.

Travelling during life and after death

Tadema could not be called a homebody: the artist almost continuously cruised throughout Europe, participating in archaeological excavations in Pompeii (one of his favorite and most frequent occupations), exhibitions in Paris and Brussels, often traveled, of course, to Rome. But in Wiesbaden he was already faced with death: his daughter took him there so that German doctors would deal with his stomach ulcer. That was the second fateful episode related to the disease: in England, the country at the zenith of its success, as we recall, Tadema also turned out to be precisely because of malaise. Germany became the final, third point on his immigration list, the country of his departure. Alma-Tadema outlived his second wife only 3 years before recovering from the psychological trauma caused by her death. On June 28, 1912, Tadema died in Wiesbaden. The artist was buried in England, the country of his glory. His ashes rest in the Cathedral of St. Paul in London, near the grave of Anthony van Dyck.

Why was he so loved?

The paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema were quite logical in popularity: the customs prevailing in Victorian England dictated not only the true manner of behavior which was non-negotiable, but also the only (or almost only) true genre. The Alma-Tadema genre and its bright colors quickly found fans among lovers of classicism and neoclassicism, because loving something else in those days in Foggy Albion was simply not accepted. And even with the decline of the Victorian era, the artist did not begin to change anything in his work. New trends in art appeared and developed - Impressionism, Fauvism, CubismFuturism and Post-Impressionism. But, understanding and respecting those areas, the artist strictly followed his own vocation. The audience liked it a lot.

Another guarantee of the master’s popularity was his work in the “applied genre”: Tadema was also in great demand as a theater artist. The Litsium Theater in London entrusted him mainly with Shakespeare, with some exceptions, like the production of Coriolanus by Henry Irving in 1901.

Why was he rich?

Tadema was, in a good sense of the word, a craftsman. Not only did he perfectly master the technique of classical painting, but he did also try not to forget his practical finds: everything that he managed to do successfully in the field of theater design or illustration, Tadema always transferred to the canvas, and also made scenarios. That way the paintings “The Baths of Caracalla” appeared (former decoration), and “Ask me no more” (former illustration to the poem by Alfred Tennyson).
In addition, the financial situation of any artist consisted of the personalities of his customers. And among the buyers of Tadema’s works was, for example, the American millionaire William Vanderbilt. Anyway, his work was popular both in America and in Europe.

Legacy by passing the heirs

After his death, Tadema left, in terms of modern English money, about 5 million pounds. Everything else - unsold paintings and the Tadema library (4000 books), as well as his collection of photographs (5000 copies) - became the property of mankind. The museum in Leeuwarden, Tadema’s childhood city, got only a fraction of his small-format work. The Tadema’s daughters received £ 100 as an inheritance, not including their father’s furniture and personal belongings. Still, the man was peculiar.
Mostly the artist’s paintings now adorn the State Museum of The Netherlands in Amsterdam and The Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Books and photos went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Tadema’s House, a real attraction in London, was initially put up for sale, but no one could sell that extraordinary property for a long time. The mansion suffered the shameful fate of a profitable multi-apartment building, in which there was not a single interior of those that the former owner created so lovingly and with great financial outlays. The house is now located at 44 Grove End Road, St John’s Wood: there is a corresponding plaque on its wall.

Is he forgotten?

In the 60s of the previous century, there was a joke going around that a thief who had stolen Tadema’s paintings had to shoot himself with grief, desperate to sell them. However, that anecdote lived for only a decade - already in the 70s Tadema’s paintings rose in price again - fashion!

A century and a half after the artist’s death, in 2017, a large retrospective exhibition was successfully held in Europe: “Alma Tadema - a classic charm”. The painting “The Finding of Moses” was sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2010 for $ 36 million, which was a record for a Victorian painting.

Written by Nata Potemkina
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