Lawrence Alma-Tadema Biography

Lawrence Alma-TademaLawrence Alma-Tadema paintings are rarely profound or political. They doesn’t strive to educate, incite or provoke. Rather, Tadema strives to soothe with his decorative, warm and colorful paintings of antiquity. These are celebrations of the past that are easy on the palette and resounding with peace. While Tadema wasn't widely accepted by the critical elite, his artwork was beloved by viewers. His universal appeal allowed him to live a life of leisure, full of travel. Tadema's appeal survives to this day, as the market for soothing works, beautifully executed, continues to expand.

Youth and Education

Tadema was born Laurens Tadema in 1836 in the Netherlands. Lawrence would receive lessons in drawing at a young age, at the insistence of his mother. Although the child had an interest in art, his father felt this wasn't a suitable career for a young man, and encouraged the boy to focus on law instead. Alma Tadema studied painting in his spare time, visiting homes with paintings so he could study them, and reading many books on technique. These activities placed a tremendous strain upon the young boy, as he was studying so hard in school and during his spare hours. In 1851, as a result of the strain, the boy suffered an emotional collapse. His doctors diagnosed this as consumption, and gave him just a few years to live. As a result, Tadema was given the freedom to do as he wished with his life, and he began to study art to the exclusion of all else. He recovered his health, and Lawrence Tadema began his career in earnest.

In 1852, Tadema enrolled in the Royal Academy of Antwerp and began to study traditional Flemish painting. Here, he learned to paint scenes of antiquity in a smooth, stylized format utilizing bright colors and smooth lines. These techniques would serve Tadema well, and would appear in many later Lawrence Alma-Tadema paintings. During his time at the Royal Academy, Tadema would apply for, and win, many awards for his painting.

Rise to Wealth

The Education of the Children of Clovis, which Alma-Tadema painted in 1861, would set the stage for the artist's later fame. This is a stylized painting, showing small children learning how to use weapons. The scene here is incredibly detailed, with period dress, hairstyles and decoration all well on display. While the painting was sold and well-received, Tadema's teacher told the young painter that he thought the marble shown in the painting looked like cheese. Tadema would take this criticism to heart, and would eventually be known as the premier painter of marble, as can easily be seen in paintings such as Sappho and Alcaeus.

In 1862, Tadema opened his own studio, and marketed himself as a painter of scenes of antiquity. He married Marie-Pauline Gressin in 1863, and the two took a trip to Italy on their honeymoon. This would be a monumental trip for Tadema, as he would tour ruins in Rome and Pompeii. He became enamored of the marble, the ruins, the painted pottery and wall art that he was shown, and was determined to recreate these scenes in his Tadema paintings. The couple moved to Brussels and Tadema began to paint these scenes in earnest, often using his young wife as a model.

In 1869, Tadema's wife died of smallpox. Tadema was heartbroken and ceased painting altogether for several months. His health began to decline, and doctors weren't sure how to treat the illness. He was sent to Europe for more testing, and found his own cure. He fell in love with Laura Theresa Epps, who would become his second wife.


Lawrence Alma-Tadema moved to England permanently in 1870, and married Laura in 1871. This would be an enduring marriage; although the couple would have no children together, Laura was a capable and helpful stepmother to Tadema's children from his first marriage. Tadema would continue to paint scenes of ancient times, and would achieve widespread wealth and fame in England. In 1873, the couple took another tour of Italy, spending a significant time in the ruins and buying photographs of the ruins so the artist could study them at home in his studio.

During this time, Laurens Tadema became Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This made his name easier for the English to pronounce, and allowed him to move his listings higher in museum catalogues.

After Tadema's return home, he painted An Audience at Agrippa's in 1876. This is a scene covered almost entirely in marble, from the walls, to the floor, to the statue in the center of the image. A beautiful tiger rug covers the floor, painted in perfect perspective. This was a wildly popular painting, so much so that Tadema painted nearly an exact copy for another buyer. In 1879, a retrospective of the artist's work was held in London, further advancing his fame.

In 1883, Tadema traveled to Rome to study the recently excavated tombs in Pompeii. The artist visited the site daily and made copious notes and sketches. He began to incorporate more and more details into his Tadema paintings, working to catalog all of the details he'd seen on his trips. In Roses of Heliogabalus from 1889 the emperor is seen, high on his throne, throwing cascades of rose petals on the people below. The scene is crowded with information, with faces, petals and marble seeming to come from all directions at the same time. Tadema was fond of painting flowers. When Flowers Return similarly contains a spray of flowers that nearly cover the faces of the models.

Lawrence and Laura were a popular couple in social circles, and held lavish parties for their friends at their home in London. Tadema spent many hours supervising the decoration of their home. Tadema became Sir Alma Tadema in 1899 at a party celebrating the 80th birthday of Queen Victoria, a further sign of his acceptance and fame.


In 1900, Laura died of complications from diabetes. Although she had been ill for quite some time, the family was caught off guard by her death. Tadema was inconsolable, and his health began to fail. He developed stomach ulcers and traveled to Germany for treatment in 1912. He died there during his treatments. After his death, the popularity of Tadema paintings began to wane, as the public no longer seemed to want images of historical scenes. In the 1960s, his work was once again recognized, and his reputation restored.