Nowadays when we think of Victorian Classical artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, we often associate him and the artwork he produced with excess, decadence and luxury. There are examples to back up this notion throughout his oeuvre and throughout the life that he led. His oil on canvas depictions of classical antiquity were deliberately opulent and many of the historical eras that he focused on, and indeed many of the historic individuals who served as inspirations to his work, were popularly characterised in Victorian times for their unrestrained lavishness and for their hedonistic overindulgences, with characters from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and for a time the Merovingian dynasty, inspiring his canvases at one point or another.

Alma-Tadema’s paintings were filled with rich and evocative materials as well. His unequalled treatment of marble is probably the best example of this, but precious metals and jewels, luxurious fabrics and drapery, vivid flowers and, in keeping with his reputation as a research expert, accurate representations of priceless artefacts and of historical architecture, all helped to populate his canvas and add to the appeal that his work could garner. Indeed, few other artists were as adept or as driven in their quest to create luxurious paintings, and while part of this was no doubt due to Alma-Tadema’s understanding of his market and desire to be commercially successful, it is clear that there was an innate interest that he had in wealth and power. If he wanted to paint a Roman vase he would travel to Italy to take a look at it. If he wanted to paint roses in the middle of winter he would have them shipped in.

In his personal life he exhibited many of the same signs of grandeur that characters from his oil paintings did. He redesigned both of his London residences in the manner of Pompeian villas with gardens that had giant classical urns, fountains leading to pools of water stocked with exotic fish, vineries and manicured shrubbery. The houses had marble columns, sculptures, themed rooms that were decorated with antique furniture, and were used to entertain the likes of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, John Singer Sargent and Auguste Rodin.

Wealth seems to have been central to Alma-Tadema’s life and work, but this hadn’t always been the style of living that he had enjoyed, and back when he was known as just little Laurens Tadema, his living conditions had been very different. He was the son of a Dutch village notary, but when his father died when Laurens was aged four, the family lived in somewhat impoverished conditions and Laurens was forced to work as a child. When he decided to go to art school it was only through money raised by the local community that his family was able to pay the fees to enable him to attend. These early struggles and the charity that had been bestowed upon him weren’t soon forgotten by Sir Lawrence, and throughout his career he was renowned for both his work ethic and his donation to charitable causes.

Unfortunately the luxuriant characteristics that had ingratiated him and his work in the minds of the Victorian art buying public were the same ones that caused a subsequent generation to reject his art as folly. The key aspects that make a painting an Alma-Tadema were being discounted as shallow excesses and the value that had for so long been associated with his work had all but vanished by the 1920s. The ‘wealth’ of Alma-Tadema’s work didn't find renewed appreciation until the 1960s, but with $35.9 million and $29.2 million sales of his work having just occurred in consecutive years, it seems certain that Alma-Tadema’s wealth is no longer interfering with his reputation or that of his work.