[1] Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA, The Way to the Temple, 1882. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[2] Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA, A Family Group, 1896. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA, Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, 1883. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[4] Anna Alma-Tadema, The Drawing Room, Townshend House, 1885. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artist of the Month - July 2017


Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1836-1912)

A Dutch painter inspired by the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA strived for authenticity in his portraiture, design and depictions of domestic life in Classical Antiquity.

Born in Holland in 1836 and entering the Royal Academy of Antwerp in Belgium in 1852, Alma-Tadema studied Dutch and Flemish art. Alma-Tadema honeymooned with his first wife in Italy and his inspiration was sparked by the ruins of Pompeii. His wife died of smallpox in 1869 which led grief-stricken Alma-Tadema to stop painting for nearly four months. In 1870 he moved to England and fell in love with Laura Epps, also a painter, whom he married in July 1871. His success as an artist continued in England and he was soon noticed by influential Victorian dealer Ernest Gambert, who commissioned a series of paintings and promoted the artist throughout the country. The dramatic appeal of his paintings was admired by Henry Irving who, in 1880, commissioned him to assist in designs for a production of Coriolanus. He continued his involvement in stage design and in 1906 was awarded a gold medal from RIBA for his consummate depiction of ancient architecture.

His Diploma Work, The Way to the Temple, 1882 is typical of Alma-Tadema's classical scenes [1]. The subject was likely to have been inspired by the vast number of votive statuettes being unearthed in the excavations of Greek temples. A priestess selling votive statuettes sits in the portico of a Doric temple while a partially revealed Dionysian procession enhances the theatricality of the composition. Alma-Tadema established a significant archive of archaeological drawings and photographs of classical sites and ruins, which became source material for many of his works. His attention to archaeological detail is visible in the precise rendering of the votives, a red figure vase, tripod and lamp.

Despite his Classical subject matter, Alma-Tadema addressed the themes of beauty, love and companionship that were common to contemporary genre painting. Such intimacy can be found in A Family Group, 1896, which depicts his wife, Laura and her brother and sisters admiring the diptych the husband and wife had painted together [2]. A self-portrait of Alma-Tadema at work can be seen in the reflection in the mirror behind the sitters. One can also see one of the diptych doors is decorated with English roses and the other with Dutch Tulips commemorating Alma-Tadema's marriage in 1871 and celebrating his and Laura's nationalities. The artist gave the painting to Laura for their silver wedding anniversary.

Alma-Tadema's portrait of his daughter with his first wife, Anna, aged 15 in their family home demonstrates the typical Aesthetic fashions of the period [3]. It is one of the many portraits he painted of his family, and shows Anna standing at a door decorated with two painted ovals depicting her step-mother. He renders the scene in a palette of subtle silver greys and greens and decorates the elaborate frame with an unusual combination of classical motifs, a Greek key pattern, and oak leaves and acorns. The setting is Townshend House, their family home, which is also represented in a watercolour painted by Anna, Drawing Room, Townshend House, 1885 [4]. After destruction caused by an explosion on a barge in 1874, Alma-Tadema rebuilt the house with extravagant and eclectic interiors in styles ranging from traditional Dutch to Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Pompeiian, Byzantine and Japanese.

Alma-Tadema is known for his specially designed frame patterns often having deep triangular sections decorated with chevron patterns in black and gold, such as his frame for A Family Group or unusual combinations of moulding as seen in the frame for his daughter's portrait Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, which also has various coloured gilding to emphasise the designs [2] and [3].

Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity will be at Leighton House Museum from 7 July - 29 October 2017.