signed and dated u.r.: L Alma Tadema CCCXC
Messrs M. Knoedler & Co., New York, by whom sold 1909;
Nathan Allen, Konosha, Wisconsin, until 1910;
repurchased, M. Knoedler, by whom sold 1916;
Daniel Good, Buffalo, New York;
Sotheby’s, New York, 19 October 1984, lot 128;
Daytona Beach, Florida, Museum of Arts and Sciences (on extended loan in the 1980s)
Rudolf Dircks, ‘The later works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema O.M., R.A., R.W.S., Art Journal Christmas issue, 1910, p.32;
Daytona Beach] Museum of Arts and Sciences Magazine, April 1984 (illustrated on the cover);
Vern Swanson, The Biography and Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1990, p.271, cat. no.421, repr. p.481
Alma-Tadema’s 1909 painting A Message of Love shows two beautiful young women, wearing dresses of loosely classical style, in the upper floor of a richly decorated palace. Through an open arcade, a view is given of the leaded roof of a further building, with a pattern of sculpted anthemia projecting from its crest, and the Latin greeting ‘Salve’ lettered above its doorway. The walls of the room occupied by the two girls are clad with marble, and on the right side a bronze figure occupies a niche with votive offerings of anemones and an oil lamp. A low upholstered bench, spread with a white fur, runs across the width of the composition. At the moment depicted, the two girls are interrupted in whatever domestic task or pleasant pastime had previously occupied them, by the appearance of flowers and a written scroll, apparently thrown up to them from the street below by a lover. The figure on the right appears delighted by this expression of admiration, and buries her face in the scented blossom. Her standing companion looks through the open arcade to attempt to gain a glimpse of the suitor below.
In the 1890s Alma-Tadema painted a series of pictures of women dreaming of absent lovers. The first of these was a picture entitled Love's Votaries (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) of 1891 in which two women are reclining on a marble terrace by the sea listening to the sound of a fountain and lost in romantic reverie. Other notable examples include Unconscious Rivals (Bristol City Art Gallery) of 1893, Love's Jewelled Fetter (sold in these rooms 19 June 1995, lot 56) and Unwelcome Confidence (sold in these rooms 6 June 1993, lot 38) both of 1895, Whispering Noon (sold Sotheby's, New York, 16 February 1995, lot 79) of 1896 and Melody on a Mediterranean Terrace (sold Sotheby's, New York, 28 October 2003, lot 68) of 1897 which, like Love's Missile depicts two women beside a low sofa draped in a white bear-skin. In all of these pictures Alma-Tadema contrasted the differing beauties of a red-haired and a dark-haired model and each appears to be reacting the romantic incidents in a different way.
In his earlier paintings, such as Phidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), done soon after Alma-Tadema settled in London in 1870, he aimed at an authentic reconstruction, which depended on visits to ancient sites and careful research from archaeological reference and photographs of buildings and their details to assist him in replicating architectural elements. Works of his such as The Vintage Festival (Hamburg Kunsthalle) and An Audience at Agrippa’s (Dick Insitute, Kilmarnock) caught the imagination of the British public for their learned and painstaking observation of day-to-day life in ancient Rome. The artist’s famous The Baths of Caracalla (private collection) shows the peaceable, if sybaritic, domestic life of Imperial Rome, and it was paintings of this type – regarded as definitive reconstructions of the ancient world – that brought Alma-Tadema great fame. Later on, however, Alma-Tadema tended to incorporate architectural elements and decorations into his subjects in a miscellaneous way and without regard to historical authenticity. No discredit attaches to this approach – Lord Leighton and Albert Moore operated on the same principle of selecting props for their decorative value in a composition rather than to prove themselves knowledgeable about the ancient world. And in any case, as Oscar Wilde observed, ‘where archaeology begins, art ceases.’ Works such as the present, are essentially light-hearted and romantic – encouraging the spectator to imagine himself part of a Roman society, to which many Victorians saw themselves as the modern-day counter parts and inheritors, and to enjoy the luxury and pleasures that were regarded as essential aspects of the life of the ancient world. Thus the impossibility of classical women being able to own such a thing as a polar bear skin several thousand years before their discovery, did not trouble Alma-Tadema
The architectural elements in the background of Love's Missile are an eclectic amalgam of classical motifs, taken from the unique design of Alma-Tadema's own home. In the 1880s Tadema set about remodelling his home and studio in St John's Wood, which had previously been owned by Tissot, at a cost of £70,000 (the equivalent today of several million pounds). Tadema felt that the number seventeen was lucky for him and renovation on 17 Grove End Road were begun on the 17th August and the family moved in on the 17th November three years later. The decoration of the sixty-six rooms of the house was not purely classical in design and incorporated Japanese, Chinese and Moorish elements. The most easily recognisable elements in Love's Missile are the word SALVE (meaning 'welcome') above the doorway, the decorative anthemia on the crest of the roof and the domed roofs, which were all present at Tadema's home. The building in the painting is not identical to 17 Grove End Road, but takes elements from it.
The model who posed for the face and figure of the red-haired girl holding the bouquet was almost certainly a beautiful girl named Marion Tattershall who appears in several other contemporary works including Bacchante of 1907, The Golden Hour of 1908 and Summer Offering of 1911. She was a professional model and her name appears in the register of models employed by the Royal Academy to pose in the life drawing schools. Her bright red hair and Saxon features appealed to Tadema whose wife Laura Theresa Epps also had auburn hair. In 1878 when Alma-Tadema painted an earlier picture entitled A Love Missile (sold Sotheby's, New York, 5 May 1999, lot 132) he chose a red-haired model but in this case it is she who is preparing to throw the bunch of roses to an admirer below. Thirty years later he returned to the same subject, to paint its prequel.
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