Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (British, 1836-1912), The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC. Sold for $29,202,500–nearly six times the pre-sale high estimate of $5 million. Photo: Sotheby's.
NEW YORK, NY.- A masterpiece by Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema set another incredible price at Sotheby’s New York today in the sale of 19th Century European Art. Two determined phone bidders held a steady competition for The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC for over eight minutes, driving the final price to a remarkable $29,202,500–nearly six times the pre-sale high estimate of $5 million. This marks the highest auction price of the week in New York , and follows the $35.9 million record for the artist established at Sotheby’s last November by The Finding of Moses.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (British, 1836-1912), The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC.. Photo: Sotheby's
oil on panel. signed L. Alma Tadema and inscribed OP. CCXLVI (at lower center on barge railing) ; 25 3/4 x 36 inches. Estimate 3,000,000—5,000,000 USD. Lot Sold 29,202,500 USD
PROVENANCE: amuel W. Hawk, New York (commissioned from the artist in 1883)
Frau von Munkhausen (acquired from the above in 1887 and until at least 1897)
Sir Joseph Benjamin Robinson (in 1923)
Princess Labia (by descent from the above, her father and sold: Sotheby's, London, November 20, 1963, lot 98, illustrated)
Messrs James Coats, New York (acquired at the above sale)
Allen Funt (acquired from the above in 1966 and sold: Sotheby's, Belgravia, November 6, 1973, lot 21, illustrated and as cover)
Leger Gallery, London (acquired at the above sale)
Galerie Royal, Vancouver (in circa 1978)
Sale: Sotheby's, London, November 24, 1987, lot 30, illustrated)
The Margaret Brown Collection (probably acquired at the above sale and sold: Christie's, London, June 11, 1993, lot 123, illustrated)
Private Collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
EXHIBITED: London, Grosvenor Gallery, Winter Exhibition, 1882 (ex-catalogue)
London, Grosvenor Gallery, Summer Exhibition, 1883, no. 122
Berlin, The Royal Akademie, Autumn Exhibition, 1887
Berlin, Fritz Gurletts Salon, 1888
Birmingham, The Royal Society of Artists, 31st Spring Exhibition, 1896, no. 646
London, The Royal Academy Diploma Gallery, The Robinson Collection, 1958, no. 81
Ottawa, The National Gallery of Canada, An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Victorian Artists in England, 1965, no. 2 (lent by James Coats)
Palm Beach, Florida, The Society of Four Arts, English Painting of the Victorian Era: A Loan Exhibition, Februrary 1966, no. 4 (lent by James Coats)
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victorians in Togas: Paintings by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema from the Collection of Allen Funt, March 1973, no. 21
LITERATURE AND REFERENCES: Possibly, "The Studio," The Artist, vol. II, January-December 1881, p. 361
The artist's correspondence, 1882
Mabel Collins, "The Art of Alma Tadema," The New York Times, March 1, 1882, p. 4
"The Royal Academy," The Athenaeum, no. 2844, April 29, 1882, pp. 419, 545
"Some English Artists' and Their Studios," The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, vol. XXIV, May-October 1882, p. 566
"Art at the Grosvenor," Choice Literature, A Monthly Magazine, vols. I-II, February-December 1883, pp. 179, 181
Frederick George Stephens, "Alma Tadema," Artists at Home, vol. III, May 1, 1884, p. 6
Carel Vosmaer, Alma-Tadema, Catalogue Raisonné, circa 1885, (unpublished), no. 291
Illustrated London News, April 1887, p. 457, illustrated
"Cleopatra," The Theatre, an Illustrated Weekly Magazine, vol. III, 1888, p. 133
"Lawrence Alma Tadema, R.A.," Franke Leslie's Popular Monthly, vol. XXXII, July-December 1891, p. 494
Frederic George Stephens, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, R. A.: A Sketch of his Life and Work, 1895, illustrated pl. xvii
Monthly Illustrator and Home and Country, March 1896, illustrated p. 105
Ethel Mackenzie McKenna, "Alma Tadema and His Home and Pictures," McClure's Magazine, November 1896, illustrated p. 41
Fedor Il'Ich Bulgakov, Alma-Tadema, Petrograd, 1897, pp. 30-1, illustrated p. 38
Daniel B. Shepp, Shepp's Library of History and Art, Philadelphia, 1905, p. 30, illustrated opposite
Rudolf Dircks, "The Later Works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema," Art Journal, Christmas Supplement, 1910, p. 31
Art World, February 1917, pp. 24, 39, illustrated
Henry W. Elson, Modern Times and the Living Past, New York, 1921, p. 182, illustrated
Mario Amaya, "The Painter who inspired Hollywood," Sunday Times Magazine, February 18, 1968, p. 31, illustrated<
NOTE: Alma-Tadema's The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC, depicts one of the most iconic moments in Roman-Egyptian history, and the artist turned to Shakespeare – not translated ancient texts -- for inspiration. Between 1850 and 1912, the Bard's Antony and Cleopatra was regularly staged at London's theatres, and the Egyptian queen was fully entrenched in the public's mind --particularly for her intoxicating beauty and the power and tragic romance it attracted (Barrow, p. 116). In the present work, Alma-Tadema favors a quiet, nuanced moment in Shakespeare's drama: a strong memory recalled after the legendary lovers have been separated (Act II, scene ii, Swanson, Catalogue Raisonné, p. 219). Upon Caesar's assassination, Antony became one of the triumvirs ruling the Roman Empire, and summoned Cleopatra (who had been Caesar's lover) to Tarsus in Cilicia to prove her loyalty. Upon the queen's arrival, Antony was seduced, and returned with her to Alexandria for a life of scandalous pleasure. By the play's second act, the Empire's civil unrest can no longer be ignored, and Antony returns home, where he marries Octavia, Caesar's widowed sister, leaving behind an infuriated Cleopatra. However, as Roman officer Enobarbus recounts, and Alma-Tadema depicts, the lasting influence of his first meeting with the queen will ultimately prove her the victor of Antony's heart:
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
the water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
in her pavilion – cloth of gold, of tissue –
O'er-picturing that Venus when we see
The fancy outwork nature...
In Alma-Tadema's rendering, the emotional resonance of the chosen scene is imbued with intricate surface details: Cleopatra's "fancy outwork" of transport, her attendants, and their various costumes and decorations. His main visual inspirations likely came from objects in the Antiquity collections of Europe's museums plus sketches made during travels to ancient Greco-Roman sites. Alma-Tadema probably consulted secondary texts, like J. Gardner Wilkinson's influential book Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians or Prisse d'Avennees' volume L'Historie de l'Art Egyptien, and he enlivens these rich sources by carefully selecting motifs that support the Shakespearian narrative and suggest the sensuality of the scene.
The intoxicating "perfume" of Cleopatra's barge is conveyed by the heavy incense spilling from censers, modeled on those depicted in Egyptian temple reliefs. The heady scent is further suggested by the garland of roses, popular in Roman Egypt, used as bunting. The barge gleams with "beaten gold" inscriptions of Egyptian hieroglyphs reading "the (female) ruler," with the name of "Cleopatra" written in cartouche. The baldachin is made up of shimmering curtains, embroidered with spider-web motifs. The roof reveals traditional Egyptian black borders featuring torus molding and cavetto cornice, and supported by columns topped with the head of the god Bes (protector of children and fertility). The side of the barge, glimpsed beside the queen, is decorated with an image of a mummified Sokar falcon (representing the god of rebirth and rejuvenation) seated on a neb basket. A Nubian handmaid looks attentively at Cleopatra, and is shown wearing a fillet of lotus flowers, a pennanular earring and an amuletic necklace. In her hand she grasps a bronze sistrum topped with the head of Hathor (an Egyptian goddess of love and joy). In the foreground, one of the attendants wears a gold bracelet taken from an example in the Louvre, while their elaborate wigs are copies of ones excavated from Roman Period tombs.
Cleopatra lounges while holding the traditional crook and flail of a pharaoh, rendered in carnelian and silver, possibly derived from a scepter discovered by the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in the tomb of Djer. Featuring ivory-colored sides and a circular pattern favored in the queens' era, her chair is supported by a pair of baboons with wedjet-eyes taken from a popular type of Egyptian amulet. On her head, Cleopatra wears a jeweled gold circlet with the royal uraeus serpent in front, and her pearl earring may allude to a famous tale of Cleopatra dissolving a pearl in a cup of wine. A traditional leopard skin worn by the pharaoh is draped around her shoulders, enhancing the bust line of her diaphanous dress. The present Queen closely resembles two of Alma-Tadema's earlier portrait busts of Cleopatra (1875, fig. 1, and 1877). The model is thought to be Bernice Zimmern, mother of Alma-Tadema biographer Helen Zimmern (Swanson, Catalogue Raisonné, p. 220). Her languorous full-length pose is unique to the present work, and suggests both casual boredom and a cool self-confidence as Antony arrives on a skiff. As his Legionnaires hold high their oars, Antony peers through the open curtain, mouth open in awe, while Cleopatra keeps her eye on the spectator with her feline eyes.
Like Nero, Heliogabalus, and Caligula, Cleopatra's name became synonymous with ancient decadence and sexuality. As R. J. Barrow explains, while a powerful ruler, she was usually caricatured as a femme fatale or an exotic Orientalist beauty. Alma-Tadema's contemporary Jean Léon Gérôme portrayed Cleopatra as a semi-nude harem figure in his Cleopatra before Caesar (1866), while Gustave Moreau's Cleopatra (1887) rendered her a symbol of the mysterious, seductive East (Barrow, p. 116). An early viewer of the present work praised Alma-Tadema's Cleopatra as the personification of the "Egyptian Venus" with the "adornments" of her attire well suiting "her voluptuous physique" ("The Studio," The Artist, p. 361). Another admirer claimed that Cleopatra "has always been a favorite with poet and painter.... The Queen of the East, who could count a Ceasar and a Mark Antony among her slaves, seems to have left behind her a memory full of strange fascination that has cast its glamour over the minds of so many through the centuries" ("Cleopatra," The Theatre, p. 133). Yet, Alma-Tadema's interpretation of the Queen was praised for its "customary originality... he shows the 'Serpent of Old Nile,' as she may have often appeared before the entranced gaze of her people on the shores of the Egyptian river" ("Cleopatra," The Theatre, p. 133).
Possibly begun as early as 1881 and completed in 1883 (the artist signed the work on January 7th of that year), a writer visiting the artist's studio in 1882 explained, Alma-Tadema "appears to have been even more than unusually industrious lately, and there are many pictures finished and unfinished, on easels and off of them. One of the most interesting is of Antony abandoning his fleet to join Cleopatra.... The completion of this picture had given the artist great trouble. 'You do not know how difficult it is to paint pictures,' he said to me. The principal difficulty in his case is, I suspect, to select the best of the many visions conceived by his teeming fancy" ("Some English Artists," The Century, p. 566, fig. 2). Indeed, Alma-Tadema apparently worked through several different backgrounds before deciding on the present work's fleet and expanse of water. One visitor to Alma-Tadema's studio spied the composition while "across the placid river is the propylaeum of a temple, enriched by sculptured and coloured decorations, and ranks of sphinxes of black basalt" while, another later noted "now it is all sea and shipping once there was land and a town in the distance" ("The Studio," The Artist, p. 361; "Some English Artist's," The Century, p. 567 ). The reworking of these vistas evidences Alma-Tadema's particular interest in compositional perspective. He frames The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra in a series of diagonals and horizontals to lead the eye through the scene, resting on each detail before travelling to the next level and back again. As The Century Illustrated's writer noted, "he plans his pictures with the greatest accuracy--- a precaution of absolute necessity in designs like his, in which one plane is seen so often through, as it were, a hole cut in another, without any gradually lessening objects" (The Century, p. 567). Christopher Wood suggests this compositional technique of merging "arrested movement" with sweeping perspectives may reveal Alma-Tadema's interest in photography. Like Edgar Degas, Alma-Tadema followed the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the first photographer to capture stop-motion pictures (Wood, Victorian Painting, p. 211).
When exhibited at the Grosvenor in 1883, a critic claimed The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra was "second to no work" in the collection ("Art at the Grosvenor," p. 179). By the 1880s, Alma-Tadema had been elected a full member of the Royal Academy. The artist was singled out for his unique brand of historical genre painting, and became a defining figure in the new classical subject movement (Barrow, p. 92). Alma-Tadema's reputation had crossed the Atlantic, and attracted many of the newly wealthy. As Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly recorded, "since his first success he has steadily advanced in power and in public estimation. How the world honors him, the cosmopolitan distribution of his pictures shows. Of these the United States have not a few. The first picture the artist sold in France was bought by A. T. Stewart [the American dry-goods multi-millionaire] ("Lawrence Alma Tadema, R.A.," Frank Leslie, p. 494)." Stewart's acquisition was likely influential as fellow New Yorker Samuel W. Hawk commissioned "that superb work, 'A Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra...' a picture in which the syncretic civilization of Egypt allows the artist to combine in one frame the main aspects of the life he loves to depict, Egypt, Greece, and Rome" ("Lawrence Alma Tadema, R.A.," Frank Leslie, p. 494). After leaving Hawk's home in the late nineteenth century, the painting passed through a German collection, before being acquired by Sir. Joseph Benjamin Robinson, the enigmatic South African millionaire living in London in the early twentieth century. After hanging among Robinson's Old Masters, early British and Victorian pictures, The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra was put into storage for decades. It finally emerged for a 1958 exhibition of his collection at the Royal Academy, London and was sold five years later at Sotheby's London. Soon after that sale, the present work entered the collection of Allen Funt, the creator of the popular prank television show Candid Camera. Beginning in the 1960s, Funt acquired many of Alma-Tadema's masterworks, exhibiting them in 1973 at New York's The Metropolitan Museum of Art in a landmark show, granting the artist a new and appreciative audience.
As suggested by recent Alma-Tadema scholars, it is fitting that a member of the entertainment industry helped rediscover the artist and his masterwork. From the 1880s Alma-Tadema had served as "historical consultant" on productions of Classical plays and later designed stage sets and costumes for major Shakespearean and modern productions (Barrow, p. 165, Swanson, Alma Tadema, p. 27). Fittingly, as early as 1888, The Theatre claimed The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra had "additional interest" in light of upcoming productions of Shakespeare's play ("Cleopatra," p. 133). In 1917 Photoplay magazine's scathing review of Fox Pictures Cleopatra sniped that one of the few redeeming qualities of the film were its detailed scenes which "might be animated paintings by Alma-Tadema" ("Cleopatra," Photoplay: the aristocrat of motion picture magazines, vols. 13-14, 1917, p. 66). Indeed, Vern Swanson suggests that Alma-Tadema's greatest contribution to twentieth-century art may have been less to painting than to film. In 1968, Mario Amaya published an article in The Sunday Times entitled "The Painter who Inspired Hollywood," arguing that the artist's "emphasis on personal drama, his wide-angle perspective, and the huge scale of his works set the scene for the epic film industry" (as quoted in Swanson, Alma-Tadema, p. 43). D.W. Griffith's panoramic spectacles Intolerance and Ben Hur could have been influenced by Alma-Tadema's works. The artist's The Finding of Moses (1905, and sold in these rooms November 4, 2010, lot 56) was expressly used by Cecile B. DeMille's script writers and designers for scenes in Cleopatra (1934) and The Ten Commandments (1956) (Swanson, Alma Tadema, p. 43). Yet, among the legendary Hollywood beauties of succeeding eras that have been cast as the Egyptian queen, from Claudette Colbert and Vivien Leigh, to Elizabeth Taylor and, in a reported upcoming film, Angelina Jolie, few rival the enigmatic beauty of Alma-Tadema's vision itself.
We are grateful to Peter Lacovara, Curator at Emory University, Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at Michael C. Carlos Museum for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.