Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, R.A. (Dutch-born, British, 1836-1912)

Bargain Brabant Women

WEB IMAGE 005Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, R.A. (Dutch-born, British, 1836-1912), Bargain Brabant Women (also known as A Fine Piece of Cloth), oil on canvas, 29″ x 23″, signed and dated L. Alma-Tadema ’60

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, R.A.  (1836-1912) was one of the most popular and highly paid artists of the nineteenth century. He was born in the Netherlands, moved to Belgium in 1852, and then relocated to London in 1870. In 1873 he became a naturalized British citizen.

Alma-Tadema began his training at Royal Academy of Antwerp in Belgium and for three years worked as a studio assistant to Louis De Taeye, painter and professor at the Academy. After De Taeye introduced the young artist to Gregory of Tours’ historical and antedotal book on the Frankish Dynasty, Alma-Tadema became fascinated with the Merovingians (a dynasty of Frankish kings who ruled in ancient Gaul from the fifth to the eighth century), and this ancient era inspired most of Alma-Tadema’s early historical genre pictures. De Taeye was a strict and meticulous teacher and insisted that Alma-Tadema display historical accuracy in his paintings, a trait for which the artist became known.

Alma-Tadema left the studio of Louis De Taeye in 1860 to continue his studies with Belgian painter Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys. Bargain Brabant Women (also known as A Fine Piece of Cloth), one of his earliest paintings produced in Leys’ studio in Antwerp, shows two women of Antwerp (Brabant) bargaining over a piece of scarlet cloth. Few paintings of Alma-Tadema’s early period (1852–1865) have been preserved because the artist was often dissatisfied with the work he executed, and frequently destroyed what he thought was an inferior painting.[1]

Under the guidance of Leys, Alma-Tadema painted his first major work: The Education of the Grandchildren of Clotilde – 1861 (usually known under the mistaken title The Education of the Children of Clovis [2] ), an ambitious historical painting representing an obscure chapter in the life of the Merovingian Queen Clotilde. The painting, later presented to King Leopold of Belgium, created a sensation among critics and artists, and laid the foundation of Alma-Tadema’s fame and fortune.

By the mid-1860s Alma-Tadema realized that historical accounts of the dark and dismal Frankish dynasty were not selling well and, being a man focused on commercial success as much as critical acclaim, he switched his subject matter to something that would have more widespread appeal – paintings detailing the decadent lifestyle of the Roman Empire. His languid men and women posed against white marble in dazzling sunlight became so immensely popular that scarcely a middle-class Victorian drawing room was without at least one Alma-Tadema print. Ernest Gambart, an influential art dealer, was so impressed with Alma-Tadema’s work he commissioned twenty-four pictures and arranged for three of his paintings to be shown in London.

In addition to being a success in the marketplace, Alma- Tadema was the recipient of numerous awards and honors.  He became an Associate of the Royal Watercolor Society in 1873 and a member in 1875, an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1876 and a Royal Academician in 1879. He was knighted in 1899 and awarded the prestigious Order of Merit in 1905.

Alma-Tadema’s work, along with so many of other great artistic geniuses of the 19th century, fell out of favor and didn’t find renewed appreciation until very recently.

In 1955 a London dealer sold one of Alma-Tadema’s final compositions, The Finding of Moses (1904), to a British couple for about $900. They paid for it in the gallery, took the painting, and left. An hour later, a man came into the gallery and told the dealer, “There’s a painting in the alley next door.” The dealer went outside and discovered The Finding of Moses slumped against a wall. The couple had discarded the canvas and left with the frame. The dealer then offered the work free to museums in Britain if they would frame it and hang it, but no museum took the offer.

In November 2010 Sotheby’s sold Alma-Tadema’s oil painting The Finding of Moses for a record $35,922,500, and in May 2011 The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 B.C. sold for $29,202,500. It appears that Alma-Tadema has risen back to celebrity status.

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[1] Lawrence Alma-Tadema, “Laurens Alma-Tadema, R.A.,” in In the Days of My Youth, ed. T. P. O’Connor (London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1901), 203. See on Alma-Tadema’s Belgian period: Saskia de Bodt, “‘Hoe men schilder wordt.’ De Belgische tijd van Lourens Alma Tadema,” in Erkend en miskend: Lourens Alma Tadema (1836–1912) in België en Nederland, ed. Saskia de Bodt and Maartje de Haan, exh. cat. (Amsterdam and Ghent: Ludion, 2003), 9–28; Teio Meedendorp and Luuk Pijl, “Alma-Tadema en de Lage Landen,” in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, ed. Edwin Becker, Edward Morris, Elizabeth Prettejohn and Julian Treuherz, exh. cat. (Zwolle: Waanders, 1996), 21–30; and Swanson, Biography and Catalogue Raisonné, 23–37.

[2] Exposition nationale. Catalogue des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et dessin, exécutés par des artistes vivants, et exposés au salon d’Anvers, exh. cat. (Antwerp: Société Royale pour l’Encouragement des Beaux-Arts, 1861), 42. The catalogue gives the correct title and explains the subject. See also Maartje de Haan, “‘Zoo hij van sommige kanten onderschat werd, kan men bij de tegenovergestelde zijde toch kwalijk op overschatting wijzen.’ De waardering in Nederland voor de schilder Lourens Alma Tadema, een beroemde landgenoot in den vreemde,” in de Bodt and de Haan, Erkend en miskend, 32–33.

[1] Lawrence Alma-Tadema, “Laurens Alma-Tadema, R.A.,” in In the Days of My Youth, ed. T. P. O’Connor (London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1901), 203. See on Alma-Tadema’s Belgian period: Saskia de Bodt, “‘Hoe men schilder wordt.’ De Belgische tijd van Lourens Alma Tadema,” in Erkend en miskend: Lourens Alma Tadema (1836–1912) in België en Nederland, ed. Saskia de Bodt and Maartje de Haan, exh. cat. (Amsterdam and Ghent: Ludion, 2003), 9–28; Teio Meedendorp and Luuk Pijl, “Alma-Tadema en de Lage Landen,” in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, ed. Edwin Becker, Edward Morris, Elizabeth Prettejohn and Julian Treuherz, exh. cat. (Zwolle: Waanders, 1996), 21–30; and Swanson, Biography and Catalogue Raisonné, 23–37.