Lot 13
  • 13

Leo Reiffenstein

100,000 - 150,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Leo Reiffenstein
  • Ein Gastmahl des Heliogabal (The Roses of Heliogabalus)
  • signed and dated Leo Reiffenstein / 1891 lower right
  • oil on canvas
  • 400 by 296cm., 157½ by 116½in.


Studio of the artist (in the Mirabellschloss, Salzburg); thence by descent to the present owner


Vienna, Künstlerhaus Wien, Wiener Jahresausstellung, 1892
Salzburg, Mirabellschloss (on extended loan from 1951)
Salzburg, Kongresshaus (on extended loan)
Salzburg, Museum Carolino Augusteum (on extended loan) 


Friedrich von Bötticher, Malerwerke des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, Dresden, 1901, vol. 2, p. 375, no. 10, listed


This condition report has been provided by Hamish Dewar, Hamish Dewar Ltd. Fine Art Conservation, 14 Masons Yard, Duke Street, St James's, London SW1Y 6BU. Structural condition The very large oil on canvas is unlined on what is undoubtedly the original keyed wooden stretcher. It would be beneficial if the stretcher keys were tightened to ensure a more taut canvas but the overall structural condition is excellent and stable. Paint surface The paint surface has a reasonably even varnish layer. Inspection under ultra-violet light shows minimal retouchings for a painting of this scale and the most significant of these are: 1) a thin line of retouching across the stomach of the standing woman in the centre of the composition, 2) a horizontal line, approximately 60 cm in length, running across the curtain on the right of the composition, 3) lines highlighting details of the figure peering out from behind the curtain on the right of the composition and on the legs and shoe straps of the man to his right, 4) retouchings along the lower horizontal framing edge and on the flesh tones of the naked figure in the lower left of the composition including an area measuring approximately 6 x 3 cm on her right shoulder. There are other small, scattered retouchings. Summary The painting therefore appears to be in very good and stable condition and the only work required is the tightening of the stretcher keys.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

This monumental composition, painted in 1891 in a virtuoso display of technical ability by the Austrian artist Leo Reiffenstein and arguably his masterpiece, takes as its theme what appears initially to be a joyful bacchanal under the rule of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (titled Marcus Aurelius Antoninus as emperor, 218 to 222 AD), or Heliogabalus as he named himself.

Elagabalus was murdered by the Praetorian Guard in 222 AD, the very men who served as the emperor's bodyguard. Following Elagabalus's death, a propaganda campaign was instituted against him by his own aunt, Julia Avitus Mamaea, whose son Alexander became his successor. Many spurious stories circulated about Elagabalus's life and character, and his narcissistic and decadent eccentricities were almost certainly greatly exaggerated. The source of Reiffenstein's chef d'?uvre is the most famous of these stories: that Elagabalus, for his own and his companions' amusement, had drowned his assembled guests in a torrent of petals and flowers that fell from a secret trapdoor above their heads.

Placed in the background beneath the arch on the left of the composition, a carved stone bust of an emperor looks impassively upon the unfolding drama and one can assume that this is Reiffenstein's reference to Elagabalus himself. A twisting cascade of roses falls from a point above the picture plane down upon the semi-clad men and women much as the rays of the sun to which Elagabalus' other name, Heliogabalus, refers ? Heliogabalus was the Syrian sun god that Elagabalus had tried unsuccessfully to introduce into Rome as the supreme deity. The apparently rapt gaze of the uppermost pair of female figures seems to suggest that the source of the flowers is a superhuman one, although it was altogether more earthly and corrupt: the Emperor's own cunning and degeneracy.

According to Edward Gibbon, the great chronicler of Rome: 'Corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune, [Elagabalus] abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury, and soon found disgust and satiety in the midst of his enjoyments. The inflammatory powers of art were summoned to his aid: the confused multitude of women, of wines, and of dishes, and the studied variety of attitude and sauces, served to revive his languid appetites. [...] The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex' (E. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. VI, chapter XL). Because of these stories of Elagabalus' immoral yet aesthetic ways, scenes from his life became popular motifs in nineteenth-century art, particularly in the works of those artists of the Decadent movement. The myth captured so powerfully by Reiffenstein in the present work was perhaps most famously immortalized by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in his The Roses of Heliogabalus of 1888 (fig. 1), but Reiffenstein's version of the scene is surely of equal power, with its compositional drama, rich attention to detail and the volumetric depths that he creates.

Fig. 1, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888, Private Collection