top right: The Three Graces of the Home: Mother, Wife and Child
bottom left: The Three Graces of Religion: Faith, Hope and Charity
bottom right: The Three Graces of Art: Painting, Sculpt
Anna Alma Tadema, London (acquired as a gift from the artist, her father, until 1925);
Roy Miles, London;
Julian Hartnoll, London;
Sale: Sotheby's, London, June 20, 1989, lot 35;
Private Collector (acquired at the above sale);
Thence by descent until sold Sotheby’s, New York, May 29, 2017, lot 1
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Exhibition of Works by the Late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema R.A. O.M., Winter Memorial Exhibition, 1913, no. 141 (lent by Anna Alma Tadema).
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Annual Exhibition, Memorial Section, 1913, no. 1027.
Roy Miles Gallery, Paintings for Collectors, November-December 1981, no. 4.
Hampton & Sons, Catalogue of the well-known and interesting collection of antique furniture and objects d'art formed by the late Sir Lawernce Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A., London, 1913, p. 18.
Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Alma-Tadema: The painter of the Victorian vision of the Ancient world, London, 1977, p. 139, Opus CCLI (with location unknown).
Vern Grosvenor Swanson, The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, London, 1990, p. 187-8, no. 199, illustrated p. 368.
The Three Graces connects Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema to an endless lineage of artworks that
draw inspiration from Zeus’ daughters, and Aphrodite’s handmaidens, Agalia, Euphrosyne and
Thalia, allegories for beauty, mirth and abundance. In Greek mythology, they bestowed what is
pleasurable in nature and society: growth and fertility, beauty in the arts, and harmony and peace.
Eschewing any obvious narrative thrust or indulging in the elaborate reconstructions of the antique
world for which he is most celebrated, in the present work Alma Tadema generously gives the
entire composition to the faces of these three figures, the flowers in their hair, and their
intertwined hands. One of the earliest and most iconic representations of the theme is a Greek
work from the 2nd Century BC, early Roman copies of which are in The Metropolitan Museum of
Art and Musée du Louvre, in which the trio is posed in a frieze-like ring, linked by outstretched
arms with hands clasped or resting on shoulders. This arrangement became the canonic formula
seen in every medium and on every manner of object, from sarcophaguses to objets de toilette to
paintings for millennia. Innumerable art historical examples are worth citing, including Boticelli’s
Primavera (1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence), Raphael’s The Three Graces (1504, Musée Condé,
Chantilly), Rubens’ The Three Graces (1639, Museo del Prado, Madrid) and Canova’s sculpture
The Three Graces (1814-1817, Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Galleries of
Scotland), and all of these works would have been fresh in Alma Tadema’s mind when painting
his own variation. In late 1875, the artist embarked on a half year tour of Europe, renting a studio
in Rome where he would begin the present work, his own version of The Three Graces. Although
this was his second time in Italy, it was the first time that he subjected himself to the inspiration of
the Old Masters, later reflecting in 1901:
I do not greatly favor the idea that art students should travel in order to study the works
of the great masters. Should they not rather wait until they have acquired sufficient
knowledge and appreciation of their inward selves to profit by works of these masters? I
confess, without shame, that on my first visit to Italy I did not see the Rafaels [sic] and the
Angelos. I saved them for my second visit in 1876 and I am certain that I viewed those
old masters with a fuller appreciation than would have been possible had I made their
acquaintance on the previous occasion (as quoted in Swanson, p. 49).
It was on this trip that Alma Tadema would acquire portfolios of photographs and gather and
prepare the sketches which would later inform some of his greatest compositions. The four
roundels appear to be such oil sketches, preparatory works that might evolve into larger
compositions. While no resulting works are known to exist, they act as tangents to the three
figures in the center diamond-shaped panel, and are explicitly connected through his allegorical
titles: the Three Graces of the State (in the Senate house), of the Home (in the atrium), of Religion
(in the catacombs) and of Art (on the scaffolding of a building). The models for the painting were,
presumably, Alice Search, the Alma-Tadema family nanny to the left, the artist’s eldest daughter
and poet Laurence in the center, and at right is his youngest daughter and artist Anna, who kept the
painting in her collection until 1925. With its unique presentation in this elaborate artist-designed
frame, The Three Graces is a jewel within Alam Tadema's oeuvre.
Just as Alma Tadema had found inspiration in Classical sources, so did many of his contemporaries.
The allegorical figures and narratives that they mined allowed them to use the body as a place on
which to inscribe meaning; in some instances the charge is erotic and in others political. Particularly
at the end of the nineteenth century, perhaps as a response to extraordinary change, unrest and
technological advancements, attitudes change. The imagery of antiquity espoused by John William
Godward, Jean-Léon Gérôme or the mythological narratives of Evelyn de Morgan, Albert Aublet
or Paul-François Quinsac compete with scenes drawn from contemporary literature and the allure
of the demi-mondaine, like Henri Gervex’s Nana, or from contemporary urban life itself.