Lot 427
  • 427

SIR LAWRENCE ALMA-TADEMA, O.M., R.A. | Past and Present Generations

300,000 - 500,000 USD
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  • Lawrence Alma-Tadema
  • Past and Present Generations
  • signed L. Alma-Tadema and inscribed Op. CCCXXVII (center left) 
  • oil on panel
  • 14 1/8 by 8 7/8 in.; 35.9 by 22.5 cm


Arthur Tooth & Sons, London (commissioned directly from the artist, 1894) 
Mrs. Selma Laufer, New York (acquired from the above, 1895) 
Asahi Art Co Ltd., Tokyo (by 1970) 
Private Collection, Mexico
Thence by descent 


London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, Ltd., Annual Winter Exhibition, October 1894, no. 26 
Birmingham Royal Society of Arts, 31st Spring Exhibition, 1896, no. 65 
Asahi Art Co., Tokyo, circa 1970, no. 183


"Notes on Art and Archaeology," The Academy, October 27, 1894, no. 1173, p. 335 
The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, London, November 3, 1894, p. 526 
Fedor Il'ich Bulgakov, Alma-Tadema, St. Petersburg, 1897, p. 8, illustrated 
Helen Zimmern, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA, London, 1902, p. 72 
Rudolf Dircks, "The Later Works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema O.M., R.A., R.W.S," Art Journal (Supplementary monograph, Christmas issue), December 1910, pp. 4, 32, illustrated 
Vern G. Swanson, Alma-Tadema: The painter of the Victorian Vision of the Ancient world, London, 1977, p. 140
Vern G. Swanson, The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, London, 1990, p. 250-51, no. 364, illustrated p. 452
Robert Verhoogt, Art in Reproduction: Nineteenth-Century Prints after Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Jozef Israëls and Ary Scheffer, Amsterdam, 2007, p. 674 (under note 210)


The following condition report was kindly provided by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: This work is painted on a panel, which is flat. The paint layer stable. It is clean and varnished. No retouches are clearly evident under ultraviolet light. There are a few spots beneath the ear of the redheaded woman which do not fluoresce as one would expect for retouches, but there may be some slight retouching here.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1894, the same year as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema extraordinary tour-de-force Spring (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), Past and Present Generations was painted at the height of the artist's career. While the title may refer to the young couples’ connection to their ancestors, alluded to by the Roman busts on this sunlit terrace, it could as easily be a metaphor for the artist’s connection to the antique subjects which he cherished.  His willingness to draw on symbols from Antiquity reflected his belief that “there is not such a great difference between the ancients and the modern as we are apt to suppose... the old Romans were human flesh and blood like ourselves, moved by such passions and emotions (Frederick Dolman, “Illustrated interviews, LXVII: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema,” Strand Magazine, December 1899, p. 607, as quoted in Edwin Becker, Edward Morris, Elizabeth Prettjohn, and Julian Treuherz, eds., Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, exh. cat., Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 1997, p. 11).

In addition to painting subtle narratives with emotional depth, Alma-Tadema was known for his diligent sourcing of historical references. The three-quarter perspective of these marble Roman funerary portraits obscure identification, but they date to the 1st and early 2nd Century A.D and are based on precise drawings Alma-Tadema made in the Uffizi in Florence and the Capitoline Museum in Rome (fig. 1). Alma-Tadema presents these funerary busts on herm pillars, forming a compelling, albeit imaginative, balustrade. The articulated armrest in the foreground is adapted from a Roman marble table support (trapezophoros) with two addorsed winged griffin, an ancient symbol known as a guardian of priceless treasure. Branches of exquisitely painted pale-pink blooms -- either almond or apple -- perfume the scene. Victorian audiences were fluent in Floriography, as defined in Kate Greenaway’s 1884 book Language of Flowers, the varietal of bloom would impact the artist’s intended meaning: the apple bloom symbolized preference whilst the flowering almond symbolized indiscretion and stupidity (London, 1884, p. 7-8).

Barely visible between the stoic row of herms, the distant shore evokes the Mediterranean near Ischia. However, consistent with other paintings from the early 1890s, it is probably Bavaria’s Starnberger See, where Alma-Tadema’s friend Georg Ebers, the German Egyptologist, had a villa, which the family retreated to in May 1890 (Swanson, p. 73). In an 1894 letter to Ebers, Alma-Tadema commented of one of his compositions, “It is a single figure girl, which has ascended to the highest point of a building to see far away out of the picture over some sort of Starnberger See, a second use of the study I painted when with you mingled with recollections… so you see my mind is still often with the dear friend at Tutzing” (letter from Alma-Tadema to Ebers, December 29, 1893, as quoted in Swanson, p. 77). While he is referring to At the close of a joyful day (1894, current location unknown), the artist could just as easily be describing the mis-en-scene of the present work.

The identity of the female model in Past and Present Generations, her aquiline nose highlighted as if she too were a sculpture, is not known. She appears in other paintings from the period, such as A Silent Greeting (1889, Tate Modern, London, which was commissioned directly from the artist by Sir Henry Tate; fig. 2) and likely 1894’s The Benediction (sold in these rooms, November 6, 2014, lot 25). When Past and Present Generations was delivered by Alma-Tadema to Arthur Tooth & Sons for their 1894 Winter Exhibition, the savvy dealer used it to draw crowds through advertisements in major London newspapers such as The Standard, The Morning Post and The Graphic. Before joining the New York collection of Mrs. Selma Laufer, Past and Present Generations was shown at the 1896 Spring Exhibition of the Birmingham Royal Society of Arts. Re-elected as the President of the Birmingham RSA in 1895, the location would have held a special place in Alma-Tadema’s heart, and Past and Present Generations inclusion in the artist’s second-largest retrospective marked it as one of his favored works.   

This work is sold in an original frame designed by the artist.