This biography is dedicated to Frederick C. and Sherry Ross, for the kind support they have given to see this project through.
Chapter 1: The Artist's Background and Early Years (1836-52)
Photo of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
awrence Alma-Tadema was one of the most renowned painters of late nineteenth century Britain. Universally admired for his superb draftsmanship and 'real to life' depictions of Classical antiquity he was much sought after by Victorian collectors who intimately connected with his vision. He so embraced the aspirations of his day that when the idealistic illusions of his age were shattered by modernism and the Great War his art fell from favour. Now, again, as the re-evaluation of that era is well underway his reputation is rebounding. The study of the artist and his art must begin as always with their origins.
Alma-Tadema was born Friday morning January 8th, 1836. His parents were living at Dubbele Straat 2, in Dronrijp, a small peasant village four miles west of Leeuwarden. It stood on the canal that connected the decayed university town of Franeker and the port-hamlet of Harlingen. The boy received his godfather's name, Lourens Alma, to which his own surname was latter appended.1 Tadema, (meaning Adam-son), is a characteristic Fries patronym ending with the suffix 'ma' - 'son of'.2
The artist's genealogy can be traced to the head of a Mennonite sect at the time of the Reformation.3 Alma-Tadema's father, Pieter (1797-1840) was one of two sons born to the linen manufacturer Jelte Zacharias Tadema. Pieter had three sons, and a daughter, who only lived six months, by his first wife, Artje Dirks Brouwer. When Artje died, Pieter married her half-sister Hinke Dirks Brouwer and the couple had two children, Lawrence and his sister, also called Artje.
Pieter Tadema was the village notary from 1832 to 1837. A much respected organist, and composer, he was frequently called upon to play at events throughout Friesland.4 The family moved to Leeuwarden in 1837 where the position of notary was more rewarding for Pieter.5 The town had at that time kept more of its medieval character than most of Europe. It was the capital of the province, as well as the seat of the Fries States and the Court of Justice.
On September 8th, 1840 Pieter Tadema died leaving little to support his invalid wife, her two children and three step-children. Hinke was frail as a result of a childhood accident, and spent much of her time in considerable pain. Nonetheless, with the help of her family, she managed to raise and educate the children. The three older boys Dirk Pieters, Jelte Zacharias and Wopke Pieters (then fifteen, thirteen and eleven, respectively) eventually pursued careers in business and law.6 Hinke's own children, Lawrence and Artje, were aged four and one at the time of their father's death.
Alma-Tadema recalled that he was drawn towards art at a very early age, but denied by his father's wishes from being an infant prodigy in spite of his early attempts to draw at the age of four. His mother had artistic leanings, and decided that drawing lessons should be incorporated into the children's education. In 1840 Cornelius Wester, the village drawing master, began to tutor the older children. Curious to join in his brothers' activity, Alma-Tadema drew his first picture, a caterpillar on some leaves. It was not long before he equalled his older brothers in ability; on one occasion he even corrected the drawing-master's perspective.7
Throughout his school days, first in Leeuwarden and later in Antwerp, Alma-Tadema seems to have been popular and generally in the center of things. Although intelligent and hardworking, he was no academic. Later he remembered the struggle between his artistic interests and 'the irksome routine of school life'. The only subject which interested him, apart from drawing, was history and then only those episodes which he saw as potential subject matter for an artist. Twenty-six small pencil drawings (c1848) on separate sheets of paper survive from this period depicting Greek gods and goddesses, possibly copies from a primer.8
During those early days Alma-Tadema's closest friend was an older boy, Christoffel Bisschop, who also wanted to be a painter. Lawrence probably met and befriended him during art lessons with Cornelius Wester. Bisschop's father had died when the boy was young, and as with Lawrence, his mother's acquiescence to her son's wishes to become an artist was deterred by strong-willed godfathers; both boys seemed condemned to take up mundane professions. The parallel continued when their respective families finally relented and accepted their desire to become painters. Both artists were eventually successful though their careers followed different stylistic paths.
Alma-Tadema's earliest located drawing dated June 1st, 1846, is of tulips. This use of flowers and water-colour at this time was probably influenced by the deaf and dumb Fries artist Felke Jelles Eelkema, a respected flower, fruit and landscape painter of the previous generation, and one of the few Dutch artists of his time to employ the water-colour medium. In 1875 Alma-Tadema donated a collection of over thirty of Eelkema's water-colours to the Fries Society.
Portrait of Lourens Alma-Tadema
His first commission, and earliest known oil painting, came in 1849 when the three children of Watse and Henrietta Hamstra asked the young artist to paint their joint portrait. It was done in secret as it was intended as a present for their parents. His success with Portrait of the three Hamstra children (No 1, 1849) was especially fortuitous because their father, Watse Hamstra was President of the Society for the Promotion of Painting and Drawing in Leeuwarden.
The artist's copy of The Miracle of the Abbot of Liauckema, (No 3, 1849) painted for Dr Ottema, docent at the Leeuwarden Gymnasium, was also completed in this year. Edmund Gosse states that Portrait of my Sister, Artje, (No 4, 1850) was begun in 1849, although it was not finished until the following year. The artist sent the latter to an art exhibition in Leeuwarden and was delighted when it was accepted and hung.9
Leeuwarden did not offer many facilities for studying pictures. Sensitive to this and fearing that he might never excel because of it, Alma-Tadema attempted to visit every house in town containing paintings, and used every opportunity to see the work of local artists. William van der Kooi, who died the year of Tadema's birth, was the most impressive Fries painter of the time and his firm and elegant portraits must have influenced the young man.10 Tadema's Portrait of Rika Reijnders, (No 6, 1851-52) with other of his paintings of the period reveal van der Kooi's sense of design, motifs and setting.
Alma-Tadema pursued his interest passionately. To maximize daylight hours, he used to wake at five o'clock in the morning to study. This was effected by tying a string from his toe to his mother's bedroom which she would tug each morning as she awoke. All his pocket-money was saved to buy whatever books he could find on art. He attributed his early proficiency to a volume on wood construction which laid the foundation of his future love of architecture, and to Leonardo da Vinci's How to become a painter, which stresses that an artist must first learn to see. A third title, The Dutch Book on Perspective, he borrowed from Cornelius Wester to make hundreds of sketches, reiterating every line and angle found in the book. His later expertise in architectural perspective owes much to the careful study of these illustrations. As Alma-Tadema's talent became more apparent, hopes of becoming an artist must have increased.
His father had expressed the wish that he should become a lawyer, and Alma-Tadema's godfathers, determined to carry out what they felt to be their responsibility, forbade an art education. However the boy's obvious lack of interest in the legal profession finally caused a compromise to be reached. As an alternative to law, his music master suggested that he should train as a musician, and he began to study harmony.11 This seemed a logical course to take in view of an inherited talent, nonetheless Alma-Tadema preferred painting and continued to practice at every opportunity. After months of work he completed a self-portrait in 1852 (No 7), as a surprise gift for his mother.
The young artist was now under considerable strain as he continued to divide his time between art, music and school. Through overwork, and lack of sleep and exercise, he eventually suffered a physical and emotional breakdown. Doctors diagnosed him a consumptive, and fearing he would not live beyond his twentieth year, they suggested that the rest of his life should be made as pleasant as possible. Thus the family finally agreed that it would be wise to allow him to spend the remaining days doing what he enjoyed most. As soon as the pressure was removed, he rapidly regained strength and prepared for his new career in art.12
Aware of the artistic shortcomings of his home town, he tried to obtain instruction elsewhere, but after several attempts he failed to be accepted by a Dutch master or academy. The Royal Academy of Antwerp did however accept him. The attractions were many, not only did it have a fine reputation as a major art center (ironically of greater status than its Dutch counterparts which had previously turned him down), but also it was a reasonable distance from Leeuwarden. His trip began on July 17th, 1852.13 The journey took him by coach and steamer to Amsterdam, where he stayed a fortnight with his godfather, Lourens Alma, and then by coach and punt to arrive exhausted, on August 2nd, in Antwerp, the 'City of Rubens'.