Alma-Tadema was born in Dronryp, Holland. He studied painting in Antwerp. In 1870 he moved to London and married an Englishwoman named Laura who was also a painter. For their honeymoon they went to Italy where Alma-Tadema fell in love with the ancient ruins of Rome and Pompeii.
The honeymoon that began his marriage also sparked his artistic career and his interest in archaeology. From that trip he became inspired to 're-animate the life of the old Romans (Lambourne 291)'.
To recreate genre scenes from the ancient world accurately, he painted from sketches he made on site in Italy. He gathered details for his paintings from museums, where he would study ancient artifacts such as statues, coins, and jewelry.
As a result, Alma-Tadema was able to create paintings that reflected the love of detail found in Dutch art with the splendor of antiquity.
The Victorian public adored Alma-Tadema's paintings. Tired of the sooty, polluted, newly industrialized world they lived in, they found fresh air and peace in the shimmering images Alma-Tadema created. One critic from Punch described an Alma-Tadema exhibit in 1882 as "Marbellous!" (Lambourne 294).
By 1873, Alma-Tadema had established himself as a prominent artist and a British citizen. He enjoyed his success by turning his London home into a Pompeian villa.
Alma-Tadema's observation and reflection of nature prompt some to dub him a realist. He excelled in painting marble. He was able to capture the luminosity perfectly and influenced many artists to do the same. Many also call him a colourist due to the strong vibrant colors that enrich his paintings. Alma-Tadema was able to convey the warm feeling of sunlight, pristine nature, and opulence of days long gone.
Even though he was knighted in 1899, received the Order of Merit in 1907, and was buried in the crypt of Saint Paul (London) among the likes of Millais and Leighton, many criticized his work as meaningless. Critics of the early 20th century dismissed many of Alma-Tadema's paintings for a lack of subject matter (what the painting is trying to say). They were able to admire his technique even if it was wasted on what they degradingly called "pretty pictures."
His paintings may have been simple in subject matter but they provided just the nourishment the Victorian public needed. They needed to see the brighter side of life, in a simple way that they could relate to, rather than the heroic myths many artists depicted. They needed to know that times were once better and could possibly be that way again. Alma-Tadema provided a beautiful world for the Victorian public to escape to, even if it was only in their minds.
Primary biographical sources: Victorian Painters by Jeremy Maas, Abbeville Press, 1969, pg 182-183
Victorian Painting by Lionel Lambourne, Phaidon, 1999, pg 291-294