Like most ambitious 19th century artists, Lourens Tadema began as a history painter. Born in the north Netherlands, he studied in the great Flemish art city of Antwerp and with Henri Leys, from whom he took the idea of incidents from the early medieval Merovingian period of Clovis, Clotilde, Fredegonda, etc. Visits to Rome and especially Pompeii in 1863-4 changed his trajectory towards visual re-imaginings of Antiquity, a genre he specialised in following his move to London and marriage to Laura Epps, a student of Ford Madox Brown, who was similarly drawn to dramatic historical scenes. Lawrence Alma Tadema, as he now styled himself perhaps in emulation of double-barrelled Brits, then carved out a distinctive career blending classical settings familiar to Englishmen from their schooldays with domestic activities that featured throughout British genre painting.
In his work, history painting ignored heroic themes in favour of household events, albeit in exotic homes and gardens furnished with fountains and marble terraces warmed by Mediterranean sun. Some are simply stunning, others quite comically extravagant. They catered for male and female clients together, wives and husbands imagining themselves lounging in such high-culture environments, far from everyday London life. Punch punningly called him a ‘marbellous painter.’
Promoted by successful dealer Ernest Gambart, Tadema’s works were so popular that in less than twenty years he was able to build a large studio house in the wealthy artists’ quarter of St John’s Wood, and to live a life of luxurious industry and sociability. He was knighted as Sir Lawrence in 1899 and nominated to the Order of Merit by Edward VII. One might have expected a long list of pot-boiling variants on the same theme, and to an extent this formed his oeuvre. He was and is admired for historical accuracy, in that his settings are based on the archaeology and scholarly research then available, although any hint of Roman realism in the style of Sickert is extinguished by the techincolor glow: no slavery or cloacae maximae here. But the paintings' chief merits are visual - the often oblique or canted viewpoints with dramatic foreshortening and cropping, in spatially innovative compositions that give the viewer a cinematic sense of being right there This Tadema perhaps borrowed from both photography and French painting, creating a view of classical life as if seen by Manet or Caillebotte. He also put himself into numerous pictures, his round Dutch face instantly recognisable among the togas; a provisional list of such self-portraits is in the NPG’s online Later Victorian Catalogue
The current exhibition Alma Tadema: at Home in Antiquity, fills Leighton House with scores of canvases by Sir L and a few by his family and friends. There is also a great video show of movie clips from Quo Vadis and Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii (both 1913), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Gladiator (2000) which show how strongly Tadema’s influenced visual ideas of Rome for a century and more.
Below is a nice, modest study by his daughter Anna Alma-Tadema, from the Ashmolean Museum.