Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912) was a Dutch painter of special British denizenship. Born in Dronrijp, the Netherlands, and trained at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, Belgium, he settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. A classical-subject painter, he became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of dazzling blue Mediterranean Sea and sky. Though admired during his lifetime for his draftsmanship and depictions of Classical antiquity, his work fell into disrepute after his death, and only since the 1960s has it been re-evaluated for its importance within nineteenth-century English art.
Alma-Tadema's works are remarkable for the way in which flowers, textures and hard reflecting substances, like metals, pottery, and especially marble, are painted – indeed, his realistic depiction of marble led him to be called the 'marbellous painter'. His work shows much of the fine execution and brilliant color of the old Dutch masters. By the human interest with which he imbues all his scenes from ancient life he brings them within the scope of modern feeling, and charms us with gentle sentiment and playfulness.
From early in his career, Alma-Tadema was particularly concerned with architectural accuracy, often including objects that he would see at museums – such as the British Museum in London – in his works. He also read many books and took many images from them. He amassed an enormous number of photographs from ancient sites in Italy, which he used for the most precise accuracy in the details of his compositions.
Alma-Tadema was a perfectionist. He worked assiduously to make the most of his paintings, often repeatedly reworking parts of paintings before he found them satisfactory to his own high standards. One humorous story relates that one of his paintings was rejected and instead of keeping it, he gave the canvas to a maid who used it as her table cover. He was sensitive to every detail and architectural line of his paintings, as well as the settings he was depicting. For many of the objects in his paintings, he would depict what was in front of him, using fresh flowers imported from across the continent and even from Africa, rushing to finish the paintings before the flowers died. It was this commitment to veracity that earned him recognition but also caused many of his adversaries to take up arms against his almost encyclopedic works.