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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema, British, 1836-1912

A Sculpture Gallery
Oil on canvas
Gift of Arthur M. Loew, Class of 1921A; P.961.125


Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s largest painting, and one of his most ambitious, The Sculpture Gallery was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1874 and the Royal Academy in 1875. Like its companion piece, The Picture Gallery (Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museums, England), the painting was a tour-de-force of illusionism, recreating with archaeological precision actual Roman architecture, sculpture, and decorative objects. The artist studied many of these ancient works of art during his visits to Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 1860s and recorded a number of the objects in sketches and photographs. However, in addition to portraying sumptuous antique works of art in an exquisitely rendered interior, Alma-Tadema also introduced a number of innovative features in his painting.

A slave, identified by the crescent-shaped plaque hanging from his neck, displays a dark-colored labrum, or basin, decorated with the mythological creature Scylla. Admiring the work is an aristocratic family, actually comprised of portraits of Alma-Tadema, his wife and children, and his brother- and sister-in-law.
For the Victorian-era critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), the picture is a biting commentary on the acquisitive nature of ancient Romans and their supposed inability to distinguish between decorative works and art of true distinction. According to this interpretation, the family is enraptured by the dazzling scale of the labrum while they ignore the more noble sculptures that surround them, such as, on the left, a marble bust of Pericles, and, on the right, a seated statue of Agrippina. This explanation of the subject draws on the observations of the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23/24 CE-79 CE), who complained that his contemporaries were more interested in the cost of a work than its artistic value.

On another level, Alma-Tadema’s painted representation of the display and sale of ancient statues and other works emphasizes the role of sculpture in original, daily settings, instead of drawing attention to their significance as timeless ideals. The similar treatment of both utilitarian and luxurious objects undermines traditional hierarchies between different categories, such as decorative accessories and fine art. As David Getsy of the School of the Art Institute has noted, the sculptures are no longer presented as representative artifacts of a Golden Age to be reproduced or recreate, but rather as an integral part of everyday life in antiquity.

The complexities involved in interpreting the meaning of the painting correspond with the apparent intricacies of its conception and execution. A recent set of radiographs reveals that Alma-Tadema’s picture is the result of an elaborate process that required many changes. The most startling alteration shows that the principal male figure on the left originally was standing and looking toward the labrum. It also appears that it was not originally intended to be a self-portrait. Other modifications include the standing red-headed woman, whose pasty white heaviness suggest that she may have been inserted—possibly along with the children—after the marble background was already completed. She also wears a long veil in the earlier version. Other areas of extensive reworking indicate that even though the basic theme of the painting did not change, Alma-Tadema labored over the final composition and particular details in order to produce “a work [of ] artistic skill and classic learning, both in high degree.”

Last Updated: 10/29/09