Monday, March 14, 2011

(No.141) Murder by rose petals

Paintings with subjects drawn from history are often the most interesting to me. I am a frequent visitor to art galleries but one with little interest in the work of, say, abstract expressionists such as the Americans Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Barnett Newman (1905-70), much less do I possess any willingness to subscribe to the view of those art critics who seek to confer "canonical status" on the creators of artistic rubbish. In fairness to my wife Pat, my companion in visiting galleries and museums, she has a broader and more sophisticated taste in art than I do.

The story behind a painting can interest me as much or more than the painting itself. This is perhaps the curse of one whose major was history. In my case it is one of the reasons I enjoy the paintings of the French artist Jacques-Joseph Tissot (1836-1902; also known as James because of his sojourn in England beginning ca 1871). I refer specifically to paintings done in England prior to Tissot's switch to religious subjects following the suicide of his companion Mrs Kathleen Newton in 1882. See for example, Tissot's "The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth)" ca. 1877 or "The Artist's Ladies" 1883.

Another painting of this period with historical allusion is "Roses of Heliogabalus" painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), the Dutch painter who lived and worked in England from 1870 on. The painting fascinated and even shocked some English Victorians when it was first shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1888. It depicts an infamous dinner supposedly hosted by the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus -- also known as, among other names, Elagabalus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. [To view an online reproduction of the "Roses" painting, go to]

Educated Victorians knew the stories of the lust and depravity of this Emperor whose short rule (218-222 AD) became a byword for excess, with a reference to him even making it into a line of a song in the 1879 Victorian comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan "The Pirates of Penzance".

Heliogabalus is one of the Roman psychopaths less well known to history than Emperors Nero and Caligula. He was married to one of Rome's Vestal Virgins and to a boy-charioteer. He liked to eat camel heels and cocks-combs plucked from living birds. He fed his horses grapes and his dogs ate goose livers.

The painting "Roses of Heliogabalus" depicted the Emperor and some friends enjoying, from the perspective of a high table, the spectacle of an unusual murder: vast quantities of pink rose petals poured down on less important dinner guests reclining at tables below them. According to one Roman writer, some were smothered to death by the petals.

Does "Roses of Heliogabalus" deserve to be called a 'masterpiece'? Probably not but then there is still no agreement on what constitutes a masterpiece of art, or even on what the objective criteria for one might be. I agree with those who argue that it is more sensible to recognize that many people may know a masterpiece when they see one and therefore the discussion of the subject is more useful when the focus is on why they think so.

The "Roses" painting is not to be found among the 1000+ artworks in a new online site devoted to fine art. The site is a collaboration between Google and (thus far) 15 of the world's leading art museums. The Google Art Project (found at allows the viewer to explore art selected by each of the galleries from its own collection and made available on the site. One can move around a museum's galleries using a sort of 'street view technology' zooming in on paintings that are of interest.

Why did these museums agree to become involved with the art project? I think mainly because their directors understood that online viewers will be encouraged to visit their museums and see these and other art works up close in their reality. There are some very famous galleries involved in the project such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the National Gallery and the Tate Britain (both in London) and the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam). In any case the online approach to art is surely growing for the viewing and for the purchase of both new works and reproductions.

Oh yes. Why was the "Roses" painting not chosen -- or even considered -- for inclusion in the Art Project? It was originally purchased in the 1880s by a Tory MP and art collector named John Aird and the painting is still in private hands.

And finally an illustration that even fewer than '7 degrees of separation' are not confined just to movie stars like Kevin Bacon: the painter Alma-Tadema bought Tissot's former house in St John's Wood (London).



1. For a recent review article on abstract expressionism, see Patrick McCaughey, "Men of primordial mode", Times Literary Supplement, Feb.4, 2011.

2. For James Tissot's life and paintings see

3. On the subject of art masterpieces see the recent book edited by Christopher Dell, What Makes A Masterpiece? Encounters with great works of art (Thames & Hudson, ca. 2010).

4. On what is fact and fiction in the life of Emperor Elagabalus, see the recent book by Leonardo de Arrizabalanga y Prado, The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction? (Cambridge University Press, ca. 2010)

5. Google's Art Project involving the 15 galleries can be visited at

6. Examples of Canadian new art websites:
-- www.

7. Examples of art reproduction websites (U.S.):

Alastair Rickard