A Roman Emperor (Claudius)

A Roman Emperor (Claudius). Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912). 1871. Oil on canvas, 33 7/8 x 68 5/8 inches (86 x 174.3 cm). [Click on image to enlarge it.] Thanks to the Walters Art Museum, which permits reproducing text and image under the Creative Commons Licence.

The Walters Art Museum site explains the subject of the painting:

In AD 41, the debauched Roman emperor Caligula was murdered. Gratus, a member of the Praetorian, draws a curtain aside to reveal the terrified Claudius who is hailed as emperor on the spot. Beneath the herm in the background, lie the bodies of Caligula, his wife Caesonia, their young daughter and of a bystander. The blood stains on the herm denote the struggle that has transpired as well as the setting, the Hermaeum, an apartment in the Palace where Claudius had sought refuge.

One may add that this painting differs from most in the artist's œuvre by powerfully depicting the aftermath of a violent historical event. Almost all the rest of Alma-Tadema's Roman canvases take the form of archeologically correct representations of activities of wealthy people that either provide the occasion for including clothed or unclothed beautiful young women — for example, A Coign of Vantage on the one hand or Tepidarium and An Apodyterium on the other — or serve as genre pieces in Roman costume, such as Love's Jewelled Fetter and such as My Sister Is Not In. A Roman Emperor has more in common with the paintings by Gérome in the Walters collection than with most of his other work. The detail of Gratus pulling back the curtain that has hidden Claudius while bowing and the half hidden, scared face of the new emperor represent a new direction for painter who specialized in canvases of Victorianized Romans (and Romanized Victorians) that appealed to those who benefited from the British Empire, successor to that of Rome. — George P. Landow.


A Roman Emperor (Claudius)” Walters Art Museum. Web. 8 November 2011. [Note: search by accession number — 37.165 — to locate item.]

Barrow, R. J. Lawrence Alma-Tadema. London: Phaidon, 2001.

Landow, George P. “Victorianized Romans: Images of Rome in Victorian Painting” Browning Institute Studies: An Annual of Victorian Literasry and Cultural History. 1984. [text in the Victorian Web.]

Last modified 8 November 2011