Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Dutch, 1836 - 1912
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Few artists enjoyed the success that the Dutch-born painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema achieved in the United Kingdom with his studies of semi-nudes, which were set against a background of daily life in ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. Born in Dronryp, his art training began at the Antwerp Academy, and was completed with Baron Leys, an historical painter whose careful reconstructions of life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made him the ideal teacher for a painter like Alma-Tadema, whose choice of subject-matter had always been similar. But it was left to Ernst Gambert, the Belgian international art dealer to realise that in Alma-Tadema he had found himself a first-class artist. After seeing his work, Gambert immediately commissioned forty-four paintings which were eventually shown in England, where they caused an instant sensation.
The Victorians had already been conditioned to accept nudes as an art form after Lord Leighton had exhibited his paintings in the 1860s. But Alma-Tadema's paintings went a step further. After painting a number of subjects in which his semi-nude females were merely decorative adjuncts to his vivid reconstructions of classical history, he overreached himself with his painting A Sculptor's Model. This uncomprising, full-frontal nude of the model deeply offended the prudes and caused something of a furore, and from then Alma-Tadema confined himself to portraying his models semi-draped. His work became enormously popular in the United States, where it did much to forge Hollywood's conception of life in ancient times. His pictures were all numbered with Roman numerals, starting with No I when he was 15, and ending with CCCCVIII.
A genial and uncomplicated man, Alma-Tadema enjoyed his success and money, living in extravagant life-style at Townshend House in Tichfield Terrace, Regent's Park, which he redesigned to resemble a Pompeiian villa. Unfortunately, it was partially destroyed in 1874, when a barge carrying gunpowder on Regent's Canal exploded near the house. After the house was rebuilt, Alma-Tadema moved to a larger house in St John's Wood, which had once been owned by the French artist Tissot (1836-1902). Tissot had left England abruptly in 1882 after the tragic death of his mistress and muse, Kathleen Newton.
Alma-Tadema's life was an enormously sucessful one in which he was made an RA, knighted and showered with honours from many countries. By 1911, however, his popularity began to wane. Realising that his work was becoming unfashionable he resigned from the Royal Academy committee, after serving on it for thirty-one years. In the following year he went to take the waters at Wiesbaden, Germany where he was suddenly taken ill and died on 25 June 1912. His body was brought back to England and interred in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral (London), where it lies in the company of fellow artists, Millais, Holman Hunt and Lord Leighton. Like so many artists before him, the grim realities of World War I helped to finish off whatever popularity his work had enjoyed, and it is only recently that his reputation as a major Victorian artist has been restored.
Alma-Tadema's wife Laura was also a talented artist in her own right, as was their daughter Anna.
Alma-Tadema's paintings are often criticised as lacking emotion and spirituality. The Art Journal complained that there was 'no spirituality and little intellect in the faces of men and women in his world.' In the 1920s the Bloomsbury Group singled out Alma-Tadema's work as an illustration of all that was wrong with Victorian art, accusing him of wasting his technical skill on subjects so futile, pointless and superficial.
A selection of art exhibitions which have featured this