Born Laurens Tadema in the Frisian village of Dronrijp, his creative skills were nourished in his youth by an artistic mother, who raised Laurens and his four siblings after the death of their father. After surviving tuberculosis at fifteen, he decided to pursue a career in art, and began attending the Royal Academy of Antwerp in 1852. In the final year of his schooling, he became assistant to Professor Lodewijk Jan de Taeye, who fostered his interest in history and historical costume.
Alma-Tadema's earliest work focused on the early medieval Franks, though he eventually branched out into Egyptian themes, which had more widespread appeal. It was a visit to Italy in 1863, however, that sparked an interest in ancient Rome and Greece, the subjects for which he is best-known.
Following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, Alma-Tadema relocated to England with his young daughters, Laurence and Anna, and his sister Artje. The move was also motivated by his affections for fellow painter Laura Theresa Epps, whom he had met after the death of his first wife; they married a year later. In London Alma-Tadema's career reached new heights as his style evolved, largely under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Alma-Tadema is notable for his painstaking dedication to historical accuracy, encouraged by his mentor de Taeye. Behind the romantic scenes of "Victorians in togas" was a real passion for historical subjects. He was not merely interested in the aesthetics of the past, but took a vested interest in archaeology and historical research. Over the course of his lifetime he made several excursions to ancient sites, including excavations at Pompeii.
Although financially successful and renowned in his time, Alma-Tadema's work fell into disdain after his death, his art dismissed as the pinnacle of stuffy and soulless Victorian academicism. Nevertheless, his vision of the ancient world would influence artists decades after his death. His mark can perhaps best be seen in Hollywood, where his work inspired the art of films such as Gladiator and The Ten Commandments.
Trivia and Tropes found in Alma-Tadema's work:
- Ancient Grome: Averted. Alma-Tadema was a perfectionist who strove to achieve a sense of historical realism, especially with regards to architecture and material goods. This is perhaps demonstrated most clearly in costuming: you won't find togas in Athens here.
- Art Imitates Art:
- Alma-Tadema's portrayal of Ancient Egypt heavily influenced the art design on The Ten Commandments, particularly The Finding of Moses. Director Cecil B. DeMille reportedly instructed set designers to study the paintings in order to achieve his artistic vision.
- Ridley Scott's Gladiator has been described as a "dark Alma-Tadema", and indeed, his paintings of Roman life served as a central inspiration for the film's production designers. His influence can be seen in the lavish sets and Janty Yates' costume designs, particularly for Lucilla.
- The interior design of Cair Paravel in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was inspired in part by Alma-Tadema's work.
- Chiaroscuro: Features in his earliest work from the 1850s and 1860s, before he lightened his palette. The Inundation of The Biesbosch in 1421 (1856) and Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) in particular feature a stark contrast between light and shadow.
- Creator Couple: His second wife Laura Theresa was a successful painter in her own right, specializing in domestic scenes of women and children.
- Follow the Leader: British painter John William Godward followed closely in Alma-Tadema's footsteps with his vibrantly beautiful, romantic portrayals of Greek and Roman life. Like his predecessor, he took a keen interest in archeology and historical accuracy; unlike Alma-Tadema, he never achieved the same success or critial recognition, having been eclipsed by emerging movements of the early 20th century.
- Gladiator Games:
- A Pyrrhic Dance depicts a group of gladiators, assuming a defensive stance as they face down something in the arena that's just out-of-frame.
- Caracalla and Geta envisions the two Roman co-emperors overlooking a gladiatorial arena from a flower-decked podium.
- Hopeless Suitor: A Vain Courtship, as the title implies. The painting portrays a captivated man gazing at his female companion, who is far more interested in looking out the window. Is she waiting for a lover or a friend, or just admiring the garden? In any case, it's clear she's not interested in him.
- Lap Pillow: In a Rose Garden depicts two ladies relaxing in a blooming garden, with one sitting on a marble bench and the other resting her head on her lap, playfully shielding her face as her companion shakes petals from the bushes above.
- Pseudo-Romantic Friendship: Many of his paintings feature young women in moments of intimate friendship. Prominent examples include Whispering Noon, The Baths of Caracalla, and In a Rose Garden.
- Public Bathhouse Scene: Roman bathhouses are subject of more than one of his paintings; A Favourite Custom is the most famous, but The Baths of Carcalla, Strigils and Sponges, and An Antique Custom also feature baths.
- Slice of Life: While he painted famous historical and biblical scenes, many of his most recognizable works depict the mundane domestic lives of everyday people, particularly women.