Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Ave Caesar! Io Saturnalia! Opus CCXVII

(Dronrijp, Friesland, Holland, 1836 - 1912)


Oil panel

Collection of the Akron Art Museum

Gift of Mr. Ralph Cortell


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This image contains three distinct episodes: a lively festival honoring the god Saturn (at the far right); the murder of the corrupt emperor Caligula and his family (their bodies lay on the floor in the center); and a guard's discovery of Claudius, Caligula's uncle and successor. Horrified by the murders and fearful that he too will be killed, Claudius attempts to hide behind a curtain.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia!, Opus CCXVII, 1880 Collection of the Akron Art Museum By the time he had completed several years of study at the Antwerp Academy, Dutch-born Laurens Alma-Tadema had received a thorough grounding in academic practice, especially the techniques of Dutch and Flemish old masters. Before the age of thirty he was elected to the Amsterdam Academy and won a gold medal at the Paris Salon for a historical painting depicting ancient Egypt. After living in Brussels and Paris, he settled in London to avoid the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. He was knighted by Queen Victoria and enjoyed widespread popularity, particularly for his perfectionist renderings of life at the end of the Roman Empire. Such visions of the past were intended as a tonic for stampeding industrialization and urbanization during Queen Victoria’s reign. In most of his work Alma-Tadema depicted the leisure activities of the ancient world's upper class, but oddly Caligula's assassination drew his repeated attention. Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia! is the artist's third version of the subject. The scene combines what were probably three distinct episodes: the assassination of the debauched emperor and his family in A.D. 41; a spirited celebration of the festival of Saturnalia; and the guard Gratus’s discovery of Claudius, Caligula's respected uncle. Claudius is horrified by the events and hides, assuming he too will be killed, while ironically he is being hailed as the new emperor. Among the carved portrait heads depicting Caligula's and Claudius's noble predecessors is one of their common ancestor, the great Augustus Caesar. Against such a past this scene appears even more pathetic. The two earlier and much larger versions were completed in 1867 and 1871. The second painting is almost a reversal of Akron's. It was reported that the artist was not satisfied with the composition and wanted to give more emphasis to the Praetorian Guard in the small, third version.1 Akron's work also shows Claudius in deeper shadow and includes live snakes at the foot of the household altar, adding a further note of theatricality and menace. In 1906 the Journal of the Institute of British Architects found Akron's painting imposing but less tragic than the large, second version. More recently, scholar Jennifer Gordon Lovett found Akron's painting "by far the most dramatic" of the three.2 Of Alma-Tadema's attraction to the subject, his contemporary, Percy Cross Standing, reported: "It had always appeared to him that this election of an Emperor by the army in opposition to the Senate—in utter contradistinction to all that had gone before—actively foreshadowed the ultimate downfall of Rome."3 Lovett speculates that "Claudius may have been a character that Alma-Tadema found sympathetic. Sickly in his youth (as was Alma-Tadema) and physically awkward, he was considered an embarrassment by the imperial family. Consequently left to his own devices, Claudius developed into an avid scholar and historian."4 Claudius also distinguished himself as a leader. "That Claudius was responsible for connecting Britain to the Roman Empire may have had special appeal to the Anglophile Alma-Tadema."5 It was not uncommon for Alma-Tadema to create elongated compositions bustling with activity. This work takes that practice to an extreme and is further reinforced by the title. "Hail, Caesar" contrasts almost humorously with "Hurrah, Saturnalia." Triumph, anguish, and fear offer a greater variety of mood than is typical of Alma-Tadema's images, making this small painting a rich example of his work. - Mitchell D. Kahan, 2001 1. Swanson, 211. 2. Lovett and Johnston, 75. 3. Percy Cross Standing. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A. (London: Cassell, 1905), 69. 4. Lovett, in Lovett and Johnston, 76. 5. Ibid. Lovett, Jennifer Gordon, and William R. Johnston. Empires Restored, Elysium Revisited: The Art of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Williamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1991. Swanson, Vern G. The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. London: Garton, 1990. of mood than is typical of Alma-Tadema's images, making this small painting a rich example of his work. - Mitchell D. Kahan, 2001

signed in oil in UL: "L Alma Tadema"/ "op."/"CCXVII"