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A Reading from Homer

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, English (born Netherlands), 1836 - 1912

Made in Great Britain, Europe


Oil on canvas

36 1/8 inches × 6 feet 1/4 inches (91.8 × 183.5 cm) Framed: 51 inches × 7 feet 3 inches × 3 3/8 inches (129.5 × 221 × 8.6 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The George W. Elkins Collection, 1924

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Here, a young poet crowned with a laurel wreath reads from Homer to an audience dressed for a festival. The setting is probably Greece toward the end of the seventh century BCE. The Greek letters in the upper right indicate that the place is dedicated to the poet.

Through attention to details such as architecture and dress, Alma-Tadema evokes scenes of everyday life in ancient Greece and Rome. However, his pictures are rarely entirely archaeologically accurate. For example, while he accurately rendered the ancient musical instrument on the left, a cithara, he also included a type of rose that did not exist before the nineteenth century.

Additional information:
  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    On February 7, 1885, the correspondent for The Athenaeum described a picture on which Alma-Tadema was then at work, to be called "Plato." The setting was Sicily, in the forecourt of a temple on a cliff overlooking the sea, girt round with ilex and gray olive trees. Plato himself was shown seated between the shafts of two marble Doric columns expounding philosophy to an audience of a mother, a daughter, and a reclining brunette, with other figures listening.

    But when the Royal Academy opened three months later, Alma-Tadema was represented by A Reading from Homer "painted in little more than a month," according to the same critic for The Athenaeum May 2, 1885, who added that "the picture of Plato addressing his disciples, which we described some time ago, has given place for a season to that before us." Helen Zimmern ("L. Alma Tadema, Royal Academician: His Life and Work." The Art Annual for 1886. London, 1886. [suppl. monograph to The Art Journal, 1886]. p. 25) noted that A Reading from Homer had actually been painted in the space of two months (March-April 1885): "This actual canvas was completed in so short a space, [but] the preliminary studies, including an abandoned picture that was to have been called 'Plato,' occupied eight months of work."

    The origins of the picture, however, are much earlier. On March 2, 1882, Charles W. Deschamps (1848-1908), one of the European agents of the New York banker Henry Gurdon Marquand (1819-1902), who commissioned this painting, wrote to his employer: "I have just heard from Tadema: he is working at the 'Singer of Homer,' he says, and is getting on well with it." Deschamps remarked that Alma-Tadema "has left other work for it," but "does not know yet whom the picture is for, as I have not forwarded your letter to him."1 Thus the picture was under way at least by the early months of 1882.

    Almost three years pass before we hear again of the Homer/Plato picture, in a letter from Alma-Tadema to Henry Marquand dated September 29, 1884. The picture described by the artist here is clearly the aborted "Plato":
    Your picture was in great progress when thoroughly dissatisfied with the results I have quite remodeled it. The marble seat is gone. The Rapsod[ist?] still sits in a marble seat & there is some sort of a seat left for two women instead of one besides I have added four more figures to the auditory [audience] which seems to me a great improvement. The ilex grove which showed above the seat is now much clearer & makes a beautiful background for the figures, especially that through the stems of the trees. I intend showing a bit of [unintelligible word] sea & sunny distance through the columns of temple & amongst the trees an altar & statue of a God appropriate to the place. Somehow the thing looks more natural & that is of course a great gain I am sure you will like it better.”

    Alma-Tadema never got the picture right. He abandoned it and started afresh on the canvas that became A Reading from Homer. The composition of "Plato," now presumably destroyed, however, may have looked roughly like that of A Reading from Homer. Infrared photographs taken in 1965 reveal a number of pentimenti showing that Alma-Tadema had trouble resolving details even in this second attempt at the composition. Several of the alterations are slight, such as the change in the position of the cithara; but others, such as the discarded position of the right arm of the reader, which was flung out in an emphatic and declamatory gesture, perhaps are holdovers from the "Plato'' composition. Likewise, the round Doric columns visible in the infrared photograph at the left and center left background may reflect the positions of similar columns in the lost "Plato."

    The reasons for the abandonment of the “Plato” were largely technical, although the subject matter may also have had something to do with the difficulty Alma-Tadema had in completing it. In 1895 F. G. Stephens (1828-1907) explained that "Plato" was left unfinished because after eight months' work "the proportions of the figures and the background [were] out of harmony [and] the whole had lost that interest which an artist must feel if he is to proceed with a picture."2 But it is irresistible not to remark that Alma-Tadema's "Plato'' is definitely a Victorian, expounding his philosophy to that family audience of mother, daughter, and unidentified brunette: no sign here of the symposium, no hint of Alcibiades.3 And this is all the more pronounced as Alma-Tadema certainly knew one of the three versions (or the print after one of them) of a contemporary representation of the scene--the masterpiece of the German artist Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880), The Banquet of Plato (1889, oil on canvas, 116 x 235 3/8" {295 x 598 cm} Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle) or the second version, 1873, Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Nationalgalerie.4 Feuerbach's frank depiction of Plato greeting the sensuous Alcibiades and his revelers is a long way from Alma-Tadema's near-domestic genre scene. Still, Feuerbach's marble atrium, richly decorated with wall paintings and archaeologically correct tables, chairs, and lamps, his philosopher crowned with laurels greeting the garlanded guests, and the centralized marble columns in the background are elements one might find in any number of pictures by Alma-Tadema. But Feuerbach's long, low format and the large scale of his picture find no echoes in works by the Dutch-born artist before A Reading from Homer.

    The present painting is a splendid example, of Alma-Tadema's eclectic imagination at work "re-creating" everyday life in ancient times. If its close predecessor showed Plato, the setting, as Monkhouse (Cosmo Monkhouse. British Contemporary Artists. London, 1899) thought, must be Greek and the date toward the end of the seventh century B.C. But as Richard Jenkyns points out, it is itself revealing that although Alma-Tadema pretended to archaeological accuracy, one can rarely date his scenes even to the nearest century or two on the basis of the setting or props.5 The effect, therefore, is one of viewing masqueraders at a fancy-dress party; and indeed Alma-Tadema is known to have loved dressing up in costume and is said to have surprised Whistler by appearing before him in a toga, sandals, and spectacles. Perhaps it is significant that the one work on paper related to A Reading from Homer is Alma-Tadema's undated cover (presumably a lithograph) for a program for the Royal Academy's Student Dramatic Society (Girl and Boy Seated by a Cithera, lithograph? location unknown. Photograph: London, Witt Library). It shows the young girl who reclines on the marble exedra, her fingers entwined with those of the young man seated by the cithara.

    The rest of the audience in A Reading from Homer consists of two young men: one standing at the left, half cut off by the edge of the picture, and the other dressed in goat skins (and so perhaps intended for a shepherd) lying flat out on the marble, chin in hand, in what must be an extremely uncomfortable position. All are garlanded as for a festival and listen to a young poet crowned with laurels declaiming from Homer in a spot dedicated to the poet, as we can see from the Greek letters incised into the marble above his head.

    Helen Zimmern ("L. Alma Tadema, Royal Academician: His Life and Work." The Art Annual for 1886. London, 1886. [suppl. monograph to The Art Journal, 1886]. ) was the first to trot out the cliché that "these dead-and-gone folk were in all fundamental essentials like ourselves," but what she really meant was that they were like a small clique of Victorian aesthetes, led by Oscar Wilde and satirized in George du Maurier's (1834-1896) cartoons and in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (1881). Zimmern unconsciously saw that the theme of the picture is that the Greeks were as greenery yallery as certain of Alma-Tadema's clients. This is aptly demonstrated in the notes to the picture in the Marquand sales catalogue of 1903, where the potential purchaser was informed that "The spirit of the old Greek life, its grace of living, & beautiful environment are revived," for in the spot dedicated to poetry, "hither he, who has some fine thought, & those who desire to 'hear some new thing,' can resort."6

    The reviewers were all delighted with A Reading from Homer and praised the artist for working up "his accessories to a higher pitch of realism than ever he has obtained."7 The key word here is accessory. Thereafter they had little to do but list the amazing things Alma-Tadema could describe with his brush: the veined and semitransparent marble, the ''pure luminosity" and "fine fidelity of the flesh painting." Characteristically, Alma-Tadema went to enormous lengths to depict accurately an ancient cithara, but then included, in a lovely still life by the side of the tambourine, a type of rose that did not exist before the nineteenth century.

    Percy Standing (Percy Cross Standing. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A. London, Paris, New York, an Melbourne, 1905) suggested that A Reading from Homer was a companion picture to Alma-Tadema's Sappho and Alcaeus (Opus CCXXIII, 1881, 26 x 48", Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery) and, indeed, both pictures have as their theme a performance of a poet's works before an audience seated round an exedra. However, A Reading from Homer had no pendant, and the theme of the artist and his audience was one that Alma-Tadema returned to again and again throughout his career. As early as 1862 in Venantius Fortunatus Reading His Poems to Radagonda (Opus XV, 1862, 25 1/2 x 32 1/2 , Dordrecht, Dordrechts Museum) he treated the subject in a Merovingian setting, but one could also point to Anacreon Reading His Poems at Lesbia’s House (Opus LXXX, 1870, oil on panel, 15 1/2 x 19", England, private collection) or The Pyrrhic Dance (Opus LXIX, 1869, oil on panel, 16 x 32", London, Guildhall Art Gallery) as variations on the same theme. One may see this preoccupation with the theme of the performer and audience as part of a wider tendency in English painting in the latter half of the nineteenth century. One thinks of Edward Burne-Jones's Laus Veneris (1873-75, 47 x 71", Newcastle upon Tyne, Laing Art Gallery), Albert Moore's Musician (c. 1867, oil on canvas, 10 1/2 x 15", New Haven, Yale Center for British Art ), or, later, J. W. Waterhouse's (1847-1917) Saint Cecilia (1895, 48 1/2 x 78 1/2, London, Maas Gallery.

    The composition of this painting is indebted to, but does not directly depend upon, Greek vase paintings. One example that Alma-Tadema could have known was a kylix in the Berlin museum by the painter Douris, discovered in 1872, which depicts a reading from the Hermesian poet (Cup {kylix}, c. 490-485 B.C., by Douris, terra).8 A Reading from Homer was one of the first large pictures to have been completed in Alma-Tadema's new studio in St. John's Wood. The dome of this studio was covered in aluminum to give a cold, silvery light to the room and resulted in a cooler, whiter light in his pictures painted after 1884.

    The first owner of the picture was Henry Gurdon Marquand (1819-1902), whose entry in the Dictionary of American Biography identifies him simply as a capitalist. Marquand, to be more specific, was a banker and broker on Wall Street and made his fortune financing railroads, owning the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad from 1874 to 1882.9 Around 1881 Marquand began to retire from business to devote his time to philanthropy, particularly to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, whose second president he was from 1889 to his death. Marquand has been called "without a doubt the most discriminating collector and art patron of his time."10 He filled his red sandstone and brick mansion at Sixty-eighth Street and Madison Avenue, built for him in the French Renaissance style by Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), with his collection of English and old master paintings, including works by Vermeer, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals, Ruisdael, Cuyp, Turner (1775-1851) and Gainsborough (1727-1788).

    The famous gray and gold music room housed part of Marquand's collection of Greek vases, terra-cottas, and Roman marbles. In 1884 Marquand commissioned furniture and decorations for this room, including wall hangings, from Alma-Tadema to be executed in the purest neo-Greco-Roman style. It was for this room that Alma-Tadema designed his famous piano, made of black ebony, inlaid with ivory, mother-of-pearl, box- and sandalwood, with raised scrollwork in ebony and ivory, and painted by Edward Poynter, an extravaganza the Furniture Gazette in 1887 called "one of the most superb specimens of elaborately artistic workmanship it has ever been our good fortune to see." The artist also designed a suite of matching furniture in the same materials.11 In this room, together with another small Alma-Tadema in his collection, Amo Te, Ama Me (Opus CCXXXI, 1881, oil on panel, 6 7/8 x 15", England, private collection),12 hung A Reading from Homer, a suitable subject for a room devoted to recitals and private concerts. To continue the theme of music in a classical setting, Marquand commissioned from the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), a mythological triptych illustrating the theme of music (the central panel showing the muses Mnemosyne, Melpomene, and Thalia; the right panel, Terpsichore, and the left panel, Erato, completed 1886).''13

    The correspondence between Marquand and Alma-Tadema, and then with Leighton, survives. It shows that Alma-Tadema was in charge of the entire decorative scheme, and it was he who commissioned Leighton on Marquand's behalf. We have already quoted from a letter written by Marquand's agent Charles Deschamps of March 2, 1882, acknowledging the commission for A Reading from Homer and a letter of September 29, 1884, from Alma-Tadema to Marquand describing his progress on that commission. In a letter also of September 1884 Leighton thanked Alrna-Tadema for arranging the commission to decorate the music room with ceiling panels: "Your me great pleasure for it shows me that the friend [Marquand] who desires my work, and for whom I will do my very best is a true and devoted lover of art whose acquaintance I had the pleasure of making this summer."

    The next two letters from Leighton to Marquand concern the ceiling panels, not A Reading from Homer. One, dated May 17 [1886], reveals that Leighton himself was responsible for choosing the theme of the ceiling panels: "Let me briefly describe the subjects to you. I have thought that in a room dedicated to the performance of music the Muses were the perfect presiding spirits in as much as with the Greeks Music and Poetry always went hand in hand." Leighton stressed to Marquand that his panels ''are emphatically not pictures but decorations,” and when Marquand wrote suggesting that the center panel be treated in the style of Leighton's large easel picture Cymon and Iphigenia (c. 1884, 64 x 129", New South Wales, National Museum), Leighton became much firmer with his patron, betraying the strength and clarity of his own notions about the kind of picture suitable for such a commission and not hesitating to "educate" Marquand:
    I gather from what you say that you have formed a different idea from mine how that effect should be attained--you speak of a subject in the centre after the manner of my "Cymon & Iphigenia"--now this is eminently a picture and wholly unlike a Greek wall decoration--nor indeed would any class of decorative painting comport the introduction of a work of so pictorial, or, shall I say, picturesque a character, or in which subtle facial expression is a chief clement. My notion in this instance would be to design something which would have the decorative definiteness and aspect of a Greek Vase, plus the richness of colour in the figures would be more or less isolated and very firm in outline and would have no pictorial background--only instead of being black blots on a red ground or white on black--they should be of full rich tone on gold ground--the effect would be rather that of the old mosaics and I think very telling.--Of course therefore I should not select incidents for my subjects but rather symbolical figures bearing upon the various aspects of Music--grave or gay, pastoral or heroic.14

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 3-8.

    1. Letters from Deschamps, Alma-Tadema, and Leighton addressed to Marquand and quoted in this entry are among the Marquand papers in the Archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
    2. F. G. Stephens, ed. Laurence Alma Tadema, R.A.: A Sketch of His Life and Work. London, 1895. p. 17.
    3. For a discussion of Plato and the Victorians, see Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford, 1980).
    4. Karlsruhe, Staatliehe Kunsthalle, Anselm Feuerbach, 1829-1880, Gemalde tmd Zeichnungen, June 5-August 15, 1976, cats. 53, 59, Z33. The first drawing for The Banquet of Plato is dated 1865 (cat. Z33). The picture was engraved by Otto Reim.
    5. Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford, 1980). p. 318.
    6. New York, American Art Association, January 23-31, 1903, lot 88.
    7. The Art Joumal, 1885, p. 190. The column "Fine Art Gossip," in The Athenaeum, May 23, 1885, noted that several pictures in the Royal Academy exhibition for that year had been damaged by being scratched with a sharp instrument. Among them was A Reading from Homer, scratched on the foot of the man lying on the floor.
    8. J. D. Beazley, Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1963), vol. 1, p. 431, no. 48. See also J. D. Beazley, "Hymn to Hermes," American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 52, no. 2 (1948), pp. 336-37.
    9. Calvin Tomkins, Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitam Museum of Art (New York, 1970), pp. 73ff.
    10. Ibid., p.73.
    11. The piano and furniture were made by the firm of Johnstone, Norman and Co. in London. Sec the sales catalogue Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York (PB Eighty-Four), Victorian International VII, March 26, 1980, lots 535-39. The contemporary art press took a tremendous interest in Alma-Tadema's designs for the Marquand music room. See, for example, The Art Journal, 1885, p. 290.
    12. Sold, Sotheby's Belgravia, April 18, 1978, lot 89.
    13. Leoneé Ormond and Richard Ormond. p. 124. Lord Leighton. New Haven and London, 1975.
    14. Leighton to Marquand, May 23, 1886, Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

    "Fine Art Gossip," The Athenaeum, February 7, 1885, p. 191; "Royal Academy (first Notice)," The Athenaeum, May 2, 1885, p.571; "The Royal Academy," The Art Journal, 1885, p. 190; Henry Blackburn, ed., Academy Notes 1885 (London, 1885), p. 9; Claude Phillipps, "Fine Art: The Royal Academy," The Academy, May 9,1885, pp. 335-36; Claude Phillipps, "Expositions de la Royal Academy et de la Grosvenor Gallery," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 27th year, 2nd ser., vol. 32 (1885), p. 94; Helen Zimmern. ''L. Alma Tadema, Royal Academician: His Life and Work." Art Annual for 1886 London, 1886. [suppl. monograph to Art Joumal 1886]. pp. 24-25; Georg Ebers. Lorenz Alma Tadema: His Life and Works. Translated by Mary J. Safford. New York, 1886. p. 90; C. Stuart Johnson, "Famous Artists and Their Work, XI: Lorenz Alma-Tadema,” Munsey’s Magazine, no. 3 (December 1892), repro. p. 258; F. G. Stephens, ed. Laurence Alma Tadema, R.A.: A Sketch of His Life and Work. London, 1895. pp. 14, 17, p. 7 pl. xv; M. H. Spielmann. "Laurence Alma-Tadema, R.A.: A Sketch." The Magazine of Art, vol. 20 (1896), pp. 49-50; Cosmo Monkhouse. British Contemporary Artists. London, 1899, p. 209; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Handbook No.6, Part 2: Loan Collections and Recent Gifts to the Museum, in the Old Eastern Gallery, [Gallery] x, November 1890-April 1891, no. 44 (and four subsequent editions of Handbook No. 6, Part 2 May-November 1891, no. 56, November 1891-April 1892, no. 20, May-October 1892, no. 53, [November 1892-April 1893], no. 53); Helen Zimmern. Sir Lawrence Alma Tadenta, R.A. London, 1902, pp. 57-58, 71, repro. opp. p. 16; Thomas E. Kirby, ed., lllustrated Catalogue of the Art and Literary Property Collected by the Late Henry G. Marquand (New York, American Art Association, January 23-31, 1903), p. 12, lot 88, repro. (introduction by Russell Sturgis, catalogue of paintings by Charles Coffin); Florence N. Levy, "Art in America," The Burlington Magazine, vol. 7, no. 29 (August 1905), p. 400; Percy Cross Standing. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A. London, Paris, New York, and Melbourne, 1905. pp. 78-79; Rudolf Dircks. "The Later Works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A., R.W.S." The Art Journal, 1910. [special Christmas issue], p. 31; John Collier. "The Art of Alma-Tadema." The Nineteenth Century and After, vol. 73 (1913), p. 603; Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Catalogue of Paintings in the Elkins Gallery. Philadelphia, 1921, no. 1; Henry Clifford. "The George W. Elkins Collection." The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 16 (November 1935), p. 5; "Popular Favorites," The Philadelphia Museum Bulletin, vol. 41, no. 210 (May 1946), p. 83, repro. p. 89; A. Hyatt Mayor, "Collectors at Home," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 16, no. 3 (November 1957), repro. p. no; John Woodward, A Picture History: British Painting (London, 1962), repro. p. 137; Stuart Preston, "Current and forthcoming Exhibitions: New York," The Burlington Magazine, vol. 104, no. 711 (June 1962), p. 27; Mario Amaya. "The Roman World of Alma-Tadema." Apollo, n.s., vol. 76 (December 1962), pp. 773, 777 fig. 7; Allen Staley. "British Painting from Hogarth to Alma Tadema." Apollo, n.s., vol. 100 (July 1974), pp. 38, 39 fig. 8, nn. 13, 14, 15; Vern G. Swanson. Alma-Tadema: The Painter of the Victorian Vision of the Ancient World. London and New York, 1977. pp. 26-27, 139, repro. p. 26; Rykk Borger, Drei Klassizisten: Alma Tadema, Ebers, Vosmaer, mis Einer Bibliographie De Werke Alma Tadema’s (Leiden, 1978), p. 14; Beatrix Potter. The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897 Transcribed from Her Code Writing by Leslie Linder. Rev. ed. London and NewYork, 1979, p. 143; Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford, 1980), p. 318, repro. between pp. 178-79.
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    When this picture was bought by one of the Museum's most generous donors, George W. Elkins, in 1903, it was one of the most expensive works of art ever sold. A taste for this type of "Victorians in Toga" painting did not last into the next generation, however, and by the 1920s Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's reputation, and market, had plummeted. But those things that had so pleased Elkins as well as Henry Marquand, who had commissioned this painting for his New York recital room, are now again a little more within our reach. The story told in the painting is a wonder of simplicity, just as the execution is a marvel in the rendering of materials and textures. In a marble palace far above the sea a handsome man, crowned with laurels, reads from a long scroll to a rapt if varied audience. As depicted by Alma-Tadema himself, a completely guileless and genuine storyteller and craftsman, such a far-off time does not seem so very inaccessible, and such seemingly noble people do not seem so very different from us. Joseph J. Rishel, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 199.