Feel Art Again: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Unconscious Rivals
Unconscious Rivals /

This week I'm excited to present a two-part 'Feel Art Again' feature on Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, one of the most famous and most highly paid artists of the 19th century. Since today is his birthday, we'll celebrate it with his 1893 painting, "Unconscious Rivals," and six fascinating factoids about the man himself. On Thursday, we'll take a look at his 1888 painting, "The Roses of Heliogabalus," accompanied by factoids about Heliogabalus.

1. The artist was born in 1836 in the Netherlands as just Laurens Tadema. Years later, he changed his first name Lawrence to be more English, and added Alma to his last name so he would appear first (or at least at the beginning) in exhibition catalogues.

2. Originally, Tadema was supposed to become a lawyer, although he had received drawing lessons from a young age. After a physical and mental breakdown at age 15, he was diagnosed as consumptive, with only a short time to live. He spent his days drawing and painting, eventually regaining his health, pursuing a career as an artist, and living to the ripe old age of 76.

3. Tadema wasn't always known as the "marbelous painter" for his realistic marble textures. His mentor in 1861, Baron Jan Leys, criticized the marble in Tadema's first exhibited work, "The Education of the Children of Clovis," comparing it to cheese. A perfectionist, Tadema took the criticism to heart and worked to improve his technique, becoming the foremost painter of marble.

4. At the turn-of-the-century, Tadema forayed into theater design (including costumes) and furniture design (often Pompeian- and Egyptian-inspired). Often, he incorporated furniture of his design into his paintings; the clothing on some of the female subjects is also likely to have been of his own design.

5. Although he enjoyed great wealth and popularity during the Victorian Era, Tadema began to fall out of favor as it drew to a close, and his reputation only declined after his death. His paintings, which earlier sold for upwards of £5000, became almost impossible to sell. He was even declared "the worst painter of the 19th century." Not until an auction of his work (a collection owned by Allen Funt, the creator and host of "Candid Camera") at Sotheby's in 1973 did he begin to be appreciated again.

6. Tadema meticulously studied and researched ancient Greece and Rome, particularly Roman architecture. Hollywood directors have appreciated his attention to detail; his paintings have been used as references and ideas for Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934), and Gladiator (2000). For The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. deMille would present prints of Tadema's paintings to his set designers as examples of the look he wanted to achieve.

A larger version of the artwork is available here.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.