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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A. (1836-1912)

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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A. (1836-1912)\n\nThe Roses of Heliogabalus\n\nsigned and inscribed 'L. Alma-Tadema OP CCLXXXIII'; oil on canvas\n52¼ x 84 3/8in. (132.7 x 214.4cm.)


This famous picture represents Alma-Tadema at the height of his career and is one of his most spectacular works. When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888, it was described by the Art Journal as 'it's painter's chef d'oeuvre', and it is probably the picture which leaps to mind when the artist is described as a precursor of Hollywood.

Heliogabalus was the most debauched of all the Roman emperors. Taking his name from an oriental sun god, he ascended the imperial throne in AD 218 and, according to Gibbon, 'abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury.' Eventually he alienated the army which had brought him to power, and on 10 March 222 he was murdered by the Praetorian guards.

Alma-Tadema illustrates the story that one of his whims was to hold a feast during which his entire court was smothered in rose-petals. A canopy has been loosened and the guests are immersed in a cascade of roses. The Emperor, in pontificial robes, reclines at the upper table with his mother and other favourites, watching the dubious fun.

The picture was commissioned by Sir John Aird, a rich contractor and MP who lived at 14 Hyde Park Terrace and formed a large collection of works by academic artists, Leighton, Waterhouse, Marcus Stone and Dicksee being among the others represented. One of his greatest achievements was to build the Aswan dam, and in 1902 he invited Alma-Tadema to join the opening party. (Winston Churchill was also included). The visit inspired another major work, The Finding of Moses, which was again purchased by Aird.

For The Roses of Heliogabalus Alma-Tadema was paid the then enormous sum of #4,000. It is one of his most adventurous compositions, in which he pushes to the limit the idea of scattering the formal elements; the 'lost and found' treatment of the figures among the roses is particularly daring. Flowers always fascinated Alma-Tadema and were often an important feature in his work, but here they actually become the central theme. He took immense pains with them, having roses sent weekly from the French Riviera during the four winter months when the picture was in progress. In fact it was still not finished when the time came to take it to the Royal Academy. The critic M.H. Spielmann, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1896, quoted 'a distinguished Academician' as telling him that 'all the difficult silver-work, marble and mother-of-pearl, with all their complexity of reflected lights and cross-colouring ... were painted in on Varnishing Day ... while the picture was hanging on the wall and the artist, pipe in mouth, and without model or study of any kind, was keeping up a lively conversation with a little ring of men around him. When I asked him afterwards if this were true, he raised his eyebrows in quiet surprise as he replied, "Why not? It was all thought out before."'

For the artist's oil sketch for the picture, see the following lot.

We are grateful to Professor Vern Swanson, Director of the Springville Museum of Art, for his help in preparing the catalogue entries for lots 120-123.


Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A. (1836-1912)


Signed and inscribed 'L. Alma-Tadema OP CCLXXXIII'; oil on canvas


Signed and inscribed 'L. Alma-Tadema OP CCLXXXIII'; oil on canvas


London, Royal Academy, 1888, no.298

Paris Salon, 1893, no.15

London, Guildhall Corporation Loan, 1894, no.39

Birmingham, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, 31st Spring Exhibition, 1896, no.354

London, Royal Academy, Works by the late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Winter 1913, no.53

Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Victorian Artists of England, 1965, no.4

New York, Metropolitan Museum, Victorians in Togas: Paintings by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema from the Collection of Allen Funt, 1973, no.23


52¼ x 84 3/8in. (132.7 x 214.4cm.)


Alma-Tadema's letter to Ebers, 14 December 1887; see Swanson, 1990, loc.cit.

Academy, 12 May 1888, p.330

Royal Academy Illustrated, 1888, p.290

Henry Blackburn (ed.), Royal Academy Notes, 1888, p.11

Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1888, p.74

Art Journal, 1888, p.183

Magazine of Art, 1888, p.268

Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1893, p.447

Art Journal, 1893, pp.216, 447

M.H. Spielmann, 'Lawrence Alma-Tadema, RA: A Sketch', Magazine of Art, XXI, 1896-7, p.48

Percy Cross Standing, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1905, pp.80, 102, 117-18

Rudolf Dirks, 'The Later Works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema', Art Journal, Christmas Supplement, 1910, pp. 12, 31

G.D. Leslie, The Inner Life of the Royal Academy, 1914, p.87

Mario Amaya, 'The Roman World of Alma-Tadema', Apollo, LXXVI, December 1962, p.772

Mario Amaya, 'The Painter who inspired Hollywood', Sunday Times Magazine, 18 February 1968, repr. p.34

Mario Amaya, The Victorians: A World Built to Last, 1974, repr. p.88

Vern G. Swanson, Alma-Tadema, 1977, pp. 7, 41, (repr.), 48, 56 Rosemary Trebble, Great Victorian Pictures, Arts Council exh., 1978, cat. p.15

Christopher Wood, Olympian Dreamers, 1983, p. 119, repr. p.121

Russell Ash, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1989, pl.18

Vern G. Swanson, The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1990, pp. 70-1, 235, no.321, and repr. p.432


Commissioned by Sir John Aird, 1888

His sale; Christie's, 3 May 1935, lot 35 (483 gns. to Messrs Nathan Mitchell)

Fred W. Reeves, Wolverhampton, 1950

With Messrs Newman, London; Christie's, 2 December 1960, lot 85 (unsold)

With James Coatts, New York, by 1964

Allen Funt; Sotheby's Belgravia, 6 November 1973, lot 23 (#28,000 by Charles Jerdein)

With Whitford and Hughes, London

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