Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema certainly lived a full and privileged life, all things considered. Born with immense talent, he combined God given ability with a prodigious work ethic to conquer his contemporary art world. A painter of classical and historical subject matters, he rose to fame and fortune with his exquisite paintings mostly of the decadence and lavishness of the Roman Empire; one aspect of his painting that set him apart was his near photographic rendition of marble – yes, marble, and the dazzling skies and architecture contained within his canvas’s four sides. In the next few blogs we’d like to examine three things that all directly contributed to building the man so revered today: the first aspect is the school where he first trained.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born in the northern part of the Netherlands, the sixth child of Pieter Jiltes Tadema and the third child of his mother, Hinke Dirks Brouwer, who each had prior marriages. We’ll avoid the intricacies of such a modern family, but suffice to say employment issues brought the family to the town of Leeuwarden in 1838. Lawrence’s early education steered him to become a lawyer, but at the age of 15 he suffered a mental and physical breakdown – scholars can’t provide the exact reason for this, but the subsequent break allowed him to take up painting and drawing, eventually leading him to enrol in 1852 at The Royal Academy of Antwerp, where he would study under, among others, famous artists such as Egide Charles Gustave Wappers.
For those without the prior geographical and historical knowledge, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp is an art academy in modern-day Antwerp, Belgium. It holds the distinction of being one of the oldest in continental Europe after Don Juan of Austria and David Teniers the Younger, painter to the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm and, founded it in 1663. Teniers was then the master of the Guild of St Luke (patrons for the arts) and it was via a personal petition to King Philip IV of Spain that a royal charter was granted to establish the academy, which was then under Spanish control.
The reputation of the school quickly grew and from the 19th century onwards it attracted the most talented artists from all over Europe and beyond. Any aspiring artist seeking a classical grounding knew that their path led to Antwerp. As with any institution, however, it was critical that the school changed as the times evolved as well. One critical phase of restructuring took place under Gustave Wappers (1803-1874) and registrar Hendrik Conscience, when they incorporated their own gallery to display their own art, which in turn generated more revenue for the school. In 1890 this gallery would morph into the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, which till this day boasts one of Europe’s most diverse and valued collections.
So who were the school’s most famous students? Sir Lawrence attended from 1852 and during his four years there he won several awards. Just two years earlier Henry Van de Velde enrolled as well – Henry would of course go on to become one of the 20th century’s most respected and daring architects. Perhaps the most noted student was Vincent Van Gogh, who attended for two years from 1885-1886. We’re sure many more students will study and move on to become future greats in the art world.