Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was never meant to be an artist. Born the sixth child of a financially stable household, his future held a career in law. With the death of his father, Pieter Jiltes Tadema, when Lawrence was only four years of age, the future took a dramatically different course.
His mother, Hinke Dirks Brouwer, decided that her children should have drawing lessons as a part of their education. When Lawrence was fifteen, however, he suffered both a physical and mental collapse - attributed to consumption. At that time he was given only a short time to live, and his mother decided that he should be permitted to spend this time doing as he pleased. To that end he focused his attention on drawing and painting, which had given him true delight throughout his life.
The young man soon recovered and decided to pursue a formal career as an artist. Beginning in 1852, he was an enrolled student at the Royal Academy of Antwerp where he would serve as an assistant to Louis Jan de Taeye. It was during this time that Lawrence would discover his own consuming interest in painting both historically accurate and painfully detailed scenes.
During his school years Lawrence earned a good reputation and won many honors and awards, but it would be as a student of the painter Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys that he developed his strongest skills and earliest stylings. His first professionally displayed painting was created during this period; "The Education of the Children of Clovis" caused a sensation and established Lawrence's reputation. It was also the moment where he began to develop the skills that would eventually lead to his nickname of the "marbelous painter".
The Clovis painting depicted several marble columns, and Baron Leys criticized them, referring to them as cheese-like in appearance. Lawrence took the comments to heart and spent the rest of his career developing the ability to reproduce marble, metals, pottery, textures, flowers and reflective surfaces with remarkable, almost photographic, accuracy.
This desire for accuracy spilled over into architectural details and garments, and very late in his career Lawrence would simultaneously design workable garments and pieces of furniture and incorporate the "real life" pieces into his paintings. Many set designers, filmmakers and costumers have since relied on many of his paintings when looking for accuracy and artistry in their own work.
While Lawrence was the consummate professional, garnering numerous awards and accolades, becoming one of the wealthiest painters in the nineteenth century, a perfectionist at work and a jovial person at play, his popularity would not outlast the Victorian era. In fact, towards the end of his life the rise of such artistic movements as Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism cast negative comments and opinions upon the artist's works. It has only been in the last few decades that his work has again won the appreciation and respect they deserve for their meticulous research and artful accuracy.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema would die in Germany in 1912, and over the course of his career he earned many awards and distinctions. He found his greatest success in England where he was both a member of the Royal Watercolour Society and a Royal Academician. He was knighted in 1899 and received the Order of Merit in 1905.