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The Sculptor’s Model is a painting with a wonderful and rich story; based upon recent archaeological discovery but daringly modern and risqué, depicting the artist himself admiring an almost life-size naked girl. It is a picture that shocked a Bishop but was bought by a High Court Judge, whose son almost hung it on the wall of a Scandinavian embassy but misplaced it for over half a century until it was discovered again in the storeroom of a famous art gallery.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema was Britain’s greatest painter of Classical antiquity but the Dutch-born artist was perhaps less inhibited by the Victorian fear of nudity than his British contemporaries. He had been trained to worship the beauty of the classical world in which the nude was considered the highest form of representation, both secular and devotional. In The Sculptor’s Model he contrasted the textures of smooth, warm living flesh with cool, lifeless marble, rough timber and dry palm-leaves – all bathed in glorious refracted Mediterranean sunlight. It is a tour-de-force of technical accomplishment but also exquisitely beautiful and deliciously erotic. There is nothing coy in this frank depiction of female beauty and allure and it was a picture that was intended to stir controversy – the placing of a palm-frond on her pale thigh and the upward gaze of the sculptor draw the viewer’s eye voyeuristically over her nudity. However, Alma-Tadema was careful to root his celebration of womanly perfection on Classical precedents.
In 1874 one of the most beautiful statues of antiquity was discovered during archaeological excavations in a former imperial garden at Piazza Dante in Rome, Venus Esquilina. Alma-Tadema saw the restored statue at the Capitoline Museum during his visit to Rome in 1876, was greatly moved by its grace and inspired to paint The Sculptor’s Model depicting an artist studying the form of his naked model as he replicates its lines in a life-sized statue. In the same year that Alma-Tadema painted The Sculptor’s Model he also painted Painters (present whereabouts unknown) depicting a Roman art-class and a naked female model. The Sculptor’s Model is arguably more interesting as it represents a painter’s tribute to the art of sculpture. Although Venus Esquilina had lost both arms, the remnants of her hands on her head suggested that she was depicted in the act of binding her hair and Alma-Tadema re-imagined how the model posing for the statue might have adopted her pose. She has her weight on one leg, giving a soft curve to her hip and a beautiful serpentine line to her left leg. The face of the sculptor is Alma-Tadema himself and originally he was dressed in a toga which was painted over to make the male figure more clothed – perhaps as the result of the artist’s mischievousness in being accused of not including enough clothing in the picture.
Alma-Tadema painted very few nudes, only a handful can be considered important works by him in this mode; The Death an early work from 1859, After the Dance of 1875 and A Famous Custom of 1909 which is well-known as it was purchased for the nation (Tate). In the Tepidarium of 1881 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) is an uncharacteristically small-scale picture which is even more sexually suggestive then The Sculptor’s Model but was clearly also based upon the artist’s delight in contrasting cold archaeology with warm modern beauty. Both In the Tepidarium and The Sculptor’s Model challenged Victorian prudery and are gloriously unapologetic.
Dr Goodwin, the Bishop of Carlisle indulged himself in an outpouring of outrage in a letter to the painter George Richmond, when he saw The Sculptor’s Model; ‘My mind had been considerably exercised this season by the exhibition of Alma-Tadema’s nude Venus… [there might] be artistic reasons which justify such public exposure of the female form… but for a living artist to exhibit a life-size, almost photographic representation of a beautiful naked woman strikes my inartistic mind as somewhat, if not very mischievous.’ (Vern G. Swanson, The Biography and Catalogue Raisonnee of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1990, p.196)
The depiction of a naked model being sculpted by a classical artist recalls the story of Campaspe (also known as Pancaste) told by Pliny the Elder in Book XXXV of Natural History. She was the beautiful concubine of Alexander the Great, immortalised in a portrait by Apelles as Venus Anadyonome (rising from the waves - naked). Alexander was so delighted with the image that he gave Campaspe to Apelles, who had fallen in love with the girl as he painted her. There was also Phryne, another courtesan who posed for the marble Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles and also a statue of herself in solid gold. When she was accused of a capital sin and brought before a tribunal, one of her lovers Hypereides stripped her naked to arouse the pity of the judges - her beauty leading to her acquital. Both Campaspe and Phryne are thought to have existed and their names have become synonymous with the creation of classical depictions of feminine beauty but there was also a legend that Alma-Tadema may have been referencing in his The Sculptor's Model - the story of Galatea. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses the sculptor Pygmalion, disappointed by the depravity of mortal women, made a statue of perfect womanhood which was brought to life by Venus. This narrative had famously been painted by Burne-Jones between 1875 and 1878 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery).
‘Pygmalion fondled that longed-for body again and again. Yes, she was living flesh! He could feel the throb of her veins as he gently stroked and explored. At last the hero of Paphos opened his heart in the paean of thanks to Venus, and pressed his lips to the lips of a woman. She felt his kisses, and blushed; then timidly raised her eyes to the light and saw her lover against the sky.’ Metamorphoses, Ovid
The Sculptor's Model had been commissioned by Lord Monkswell, Sir Robert Collier an M.P. and Judge of the Privy Council, whose son John became a studio assistant for Alma-Tadema and a noted portrait painter with a side-line in eroticism. The Honourable John Collier’s Lilith, Clytemnestra, Tannhauser in the Venusberg and Lady Godiva were less-subtle examples of the late-nineteenth-century vogue for paintings of nude women in the guise of literary or mythological characters. When the painting passed to John Collier’s son Lawrence (named after Alma-Tadema) who was the British Ambassador for Norway, it was inadvertently packed with the possessions that he intended to display in the Embassy in Oslo. Whilst Collier was in Norway he rented his London residence to Polish refugees and upon returning to England he blamed them for stealing the picture which was missing. However, the picture had not been sent to London and had been misplaced in transit to Oslo and by some error made its way into storage in the basement of the National Gallery of Oslo where it remained until 1981.
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