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Getting Technical: The Art of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The life of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, one of the most successful painters of the High Victorian period, was not the typical life of most artists who struggle to survive only to become famous after their death. In contrast, Alma-Tadema reveled in the wealth he earned from creating the most popular, the most reproduced, and the most expensive paintings of the time period, during his lifetime. Yet somehow, as the end of the 19th century neared and Victoriana fell out of fashion, the work of Alma-Tadema was all but forgotten. It wasn’t until a renewed interest in Victorian art in the 1960s, that the work of this artist has been celebrated again.

Lourens Alma Tadema was born in 1836 in Holland, the son of a local notary. As a youth, Lourens showed some artistic talent and at age 16, was enrolled in the Antwerp Academy. As an assistant to several well-known academic artists of the time, he began to develop an interest in archaeology and history.

Lourens’ early paintings centered about Merovingian themes, a preoccupation that lasted until about 1862, when he attended the International Exhibition in London. Fascinated by the Egyptian artifacts he saw in the British Museum, he began to favor Egyptian themes in his work. In 1863, he married a Frenchwoman and enjoyed an extended honeymoon in Italy. There, he became so fascinated by the Roman ruins and recently-excavated Pompeii that these subjects took precedence as themes of his paintings.

Thus, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, as he became known after moving his studio to London in 1870, became the foremost painter of the ancient world. Tadema’s style is one of meticulous detail and technical perfection; not only was he faithful to historical details, his paintings appeared absolutely real. To achieve this realism required enormous effort. Many of his paintings included a hundred figures in each. He was able to portray almost any texture exquisitely but his painting of marble was unrivaled. He was a master of creating excellent paints and his works, now over 100 years old, still appear fresh and luminous. Tadema produced over four hundred paintings in his sixty productive years. He painted predominantly in oils but he was equally competent in other media as well.

Critics of Tadema’s work claim that his human subjects lack emotional dimensionality and his themes are devoid of moralistic messages. But the reason for his success in Victorian society was not only due to his technical expertise but to his business acumen. In short, he gave society what it wanted and that happened to be an acceptable, realistic, private glimpse of scenes in the everyday life the ancient world, complete with fascinating archaeological details to accompany them.

Becoming an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1876 and knighted by Queen Victoria in 1899, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema had reached the pinnacle of artistic success. He had achieved wealth, fame and personal satisfaction. Although regard for his work declined for a period of time after his death, he is now recognized as perhaps the most technically skilled artist of all time. Several of his better known works are Silver Favourites, The Baths at Caracalla, and Coign of Vantage.

To see some of Alma-Tadema’s work click here.

Coign of Vantage from

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at