Lot 5
  • 5

Giuseppe de Sanctis

100,000 - 150,000 USD
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  • Giuseppe de Sanctis
  • Teodora
  • signed Giuseppe DeSanctis, inscribed Napoli and dated 1887 (lower left) 
  • oil on canvas 
  • 26 1/2 by 55 1/2 in.
  • 67.3 by 141 cm


Private Collection, South America
Acquired from the above by the present owner


Venice, Esposizione Nazionale Artistica, September 5-18, 1887, no. 36


Maria Savi Lopez, "All' Esposizione di Venezia," Letture per Le Giovinette, Turin, 1887, vol. IX, p. 54
J. D. Widmann, Jenseits des Gotthard: Menschen, Städte und Landschaften in Ober- und Mittel-Italien, Frauenfeld, 1888, p. 242
Vincenzo Mikelli, Esposizione Nazionale di Belle Arti in Venezia: Profili e Pensieri, Rome, 1888, p. 27-8
Michael F. Zimmermann, Industrialisierung Der Phantasie: Der Aufbau des modernen Italien und das Mediensystem der Künste 1875-1900, Berlin, 2006, p. 96, illustrated 


The following condition report was kindly provided by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: This work is restored and in very good condition. The canvas has been lined. The paint layer is well textured. There is no abrasion. Retouches are clearly visible under ultraviolet light, in the marble floor beneath the figure in red on the far right, on the top edge above the flautist, in a spot in the chest above the reclining figure, in the lower left corner, and on the bottom edge beneath the reclining figure. Some of the original paint layer reads strongly in the face and right arm of the darker figure in the upper right in front of the group but these do not correspond to retouches. The reclining figure is in beautiful condition, as is the remainder of the picture. The painting should be hung as is.
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.

Catalogue Note

In 1887, Domenico Morelli, artist and director at the Academia di Belle Arti, invited an art critic to his Naples studio, where he boasted about Giuseppe de Sanctis — among his most promising students — and his painting Teodora, set to debut days later at the Venice Esposizione Nazionale Artistica. With only a black-and-white photograph of Teodora to show the critic, Morelli spoke proudly of the work’s magical color and sublime richness, the very qualities which drew exhibition-goers (Lopez, p. 54). A year earlier, de Sanctis had won a silver medal in Palermo for his first Byzantine composition La preghiera della sera a Bisanzio (Evening prayer at Byzantium), and its purchase by King Umberto I secured the young artist’s reputation. Expanding on the theme was Teodora, in which the eponymous empress wears only a jeweled crown and collar and sleeps on a bed of richly embroidered textiles, surrounded by sumptuously detailed mosaic floors and frescoed walls. The finely painted details and palette of brilliant gem-like tones point toward Morelli’s instruction (which in turn was influenced by Mariano Fortuny); the subject was also likely informed by his teacher’s affinity for medieval and classical history. By the late nineteenth century, archaeological discoveries, widely circulated publications of art and artifact, and expanded travel through Italy, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa brought an increasing interest in the Byzantine era, and tales of its iconic rulers were captured in nearly mythologized, often lurid, biographies. Empress of Byzantium from 527-548, Theodora was one of the most powerful women in the empire's history. By and large, it was the ancient scholar Procopius who recorded Theodora’s life in three texts: the History of the Wars of Justinian, De Aedificiis, and Anekdota (or The Secret History). Theodora’s fame began as an actress (a profession associated with prostitution at the time) and she was celebrated for her nude performances and for hosting sensational parties after the day’s theatrics. After adopting the beliefs of Monophysitism (an ancient form of Christianity purporting that Jesus was wholly divine), she gave up her former life, and became a wool-spinner living near the emperor Justinian’s palace in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Despite her humble beginnings, Theodora drew Justinian’s attention, eventually becoming his mistress and then his wife, and was considered an intellectual and political equal to her husband. Theodora drove many of the groundbreaking decisions of the Empire, and was recognized as a great reformer in expanding the legal rights of women. Together with Justinian, she advanced the physical makeup of the empire, expanding a network of aqueducts, bridges, roads, and building churches—the most magnificent of which is the Hagia Sophia.

Theodora is frequently represented in ancient artwork, most notably in the elaborate mosaics still visible in the Basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna in northern Italy, which likely inspired de Sanctis' designs at the upper left of the present work (fig. 1). Following this tradition, the Empress was a popular choice of subject among de Sanctis’ contemporaries, and she was frequently portrayed by artists such as Benjamin-Constant (see previous lot), imposingly enthroned or aloof in regal repose (fig. 2). De Sanctis’ depiction of the sleeping, nude Theodora accompanied by male musicians and Justinian (or perhaps one of her reported lovers) sensualizes the Empress, suggesting the artist’s understanding of the more sensationalized elements of her history. In so doing, de Sanctis’ composition follows late nineteenth century popular culture’s interests in Byzantine history, exemplified by playwright Victorien Sardou’s 1884 play Théodora, which portrayed the era as one of regal decadence and seductive power. On grand stage-sets recreating a Byzantine palace, Sardou’s Empress Théodora was famously played nearly 900 times by Sarah Bernhardt, who commanded the stage with custom-made costumes of bleu de ciel satin, elaborately embroidered and bejeweled, slipping out of the palace for clandestine affairs (fig. 3). The image of Theodora perpetuated by Sardou, and echoed by de Sanctis, would become firmly ensconced in the public imagination of the era. Just as in the theatrical production, de Sanctis’ work heightened elements of narrative drama, with many but not all of its details historically accurate: the circular disc supporting Theodora’s bed, its portrait relief based on coin designs produced by Justinian; the floor pattern, which resembles that of the Basilica of San Vitale; and the enameled cabinet in the background, the most anachronistic object within the composition, as it is a based on a version of a thirteenth century Limoges enamel reliquary (here enlarged to serve as a cabinet but in reality a handheld, devotional object), depicting the beheading of Thomas Becket (below) and his burial (above).   

Viewing the work in Venice, some critics struggled to follow the work’s narrative. But their inability to find historical precedent suggested how innovative and bold de Sanctis’ interpretation truly was.  The academic debate of its accuracy had little influence on the work’s welcome reception, and within days of the Venice exhibition’s opening, Teodora found a buyer. The identity of this collector remains elusive but, intriguingly, Isma’il Pasha (1830-1895), once Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, is named as one of the more distinguished visitors to the exhibition in the days preceding the painting’s sale. While illustrations of Teodora were widely published after the exhibition closed and it remained synonymous with the artist throughout his career, the painting has been lost for well over a century.  It has never been published in color and is exhibited today for only the second time in its recorded history.