“Sappho and Alcaeus” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
“Sappho and Alcaeus” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicts the poet Alcaeus of Mytilene playing the kithara for the poet Sappho, accompanied by several of her female friends.
Sappho is paying close attention to the performance, resting her arm on a cushion which bears a laurel wreath, intended as a gift for the performer.
The white marble seating is based on the “Theater of Dionysus” in Athens, but the artist has replaced the original inscribed names of Athenians with the names of Sappho’s friends. In the background, the Aegean Sea can be seen through the trees.
This painting was inspired by a passage by the ancient Greek poet Hermesianax (about 330 BC), which is set on the island of Lesbos, in the late 7th century BC.
The ancient text tells the story about Sappho, and her companions listen rapturously to the poet Alcaeus as he plays a “kithara.”
This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881 and was highly praised by critics. Punch described it as “marbellous,” a play on the words marvelous and marble.”.
Sappho (630 – 570 BC) was considered the greatest female poet of ancient Greece. Sappho came from the island of Lesbos and was known for her lyric poetry, written to be sung while accompanied by a lyre.
In ancient times, Sappho was widely regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets and honed with the name “The Poetess.”
Beyond her poetry, she is well known as a symbol of love and desire between women, with the English words sapphic and lesbian being derived from her name and the name of her home island, respectively.
Most of Sappho’s poetry is now lost, and what has survived is only in fragmentary form, except for one complete poem: the “Ode to Aphrodite.”
Her poetry was well-known and greatly admired through much of antiquity, and she was among the canon of nine lyric poets most highly esteemed by scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. Sappho’s poetry is still considered extraordinary, and her works continue to influence other writers.
Alcaeus of Mytilene
Alcaeus of Mytilene ( 620 – 6th century BC) was a lyric poet also from the Greek island of Lesbos who is credited with inventing the Alcaic stanza.
He was included in the canonical list of nine lyric poets by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. He was an older contemporary of Sappho, with whom he may have exchanged poems.
He was born into the aristocratic governing class of Mytilene, the central city of Lesbos.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912) was a Dutch painter with special British denizenship (permanent residency).
Born in the Netherlands, and trained at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, he settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there.
A painter of classical-subjects, he became famous for his depictions of the decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of the blue Mediterranean Sea and sky.
In London, Alma-Tadema found a ready market among the wealthy middle classes for paintings re-creating scenes of domestic life in imperial Roman times and Ancient Greek views.
Though admired during his lifetime for his skills in the depictions of Classical antiquity, his work fell into disrepute after his death. Only since the 1960s has it been re-evaluated for its importance within nineteenth-century British art.
Sappho and Alcaeus
- Title: Sappho and Alcaeus
- Artist: Lawrence Alma-Tadema
- Year: 1881
- Type: Oil on panel
- Dimensions: Height: 104.14 mm (4.10 ″); Width: 122 mm (4.80 ″)
- Museum: Walters Art Museum
- Artist: Lawrence Alma-Tadema
- Born: 1836, Dronrijp, Netherlands
- Died: 1912 (aged 76), Wiesbaden, German Empire
- Nationality: Dutch, British denizenship
- Movement: Academicism
- Notable works:
Sappho and Alcaeus – Lawrence Alma-Tadema
A Tour of the Walters Art Museum
- “The Duel After the Masquerade” by Jean-Léon Gérôme
- Ancient Sumerian Male Worshipper
- Padiiset’s Statue
- Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man
- “The Sailor’s Wedding” by Richard Caton Woodville
- Portrait of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius
- “Sappho and Alcaeus” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
- Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme
- “Susannah and the Elders” by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari
- Goyō Hashiguchi – Japanese Woodblock Artist – Ukiyo-e
- “Woman in Blue Combing Her Hair” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Geisha Hisae with a Towel” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Woman Applying Color to Her Lips” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Woman Powdering Her Neck” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Hotspring Hotel” – “Onsen yado” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Waitress with a Red Tray” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Woman after the Bath” – Yokujo no Onna by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Woman Dressing in a Long Undergarment” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Woman Folding Kimono” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Woman in a Summer Kimono” by Goyō Hashiguchi
- “Woman Washing Her Face” by Goyō Hashiguchi
Sappho von Mitilene, Op.68 – Ouverture
Sappho Poet / Biography
“Beauty endures only for as long as it can be seen; goodness, beautiful today, will remain so tomorrow.”
“Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear.”
“To me the Muses truly gave
An envied and a happy lot
Even when I lie within the grave,
I cannot shall not be forgotten.”
“When I look on you a moment, then I can speak no more, but my tongue falls silent, and at once a delicate flame courses beneath my skin, and with my eyes I see nothing, and my ears hum, and a wet sweat bathes me, and a trembling seizes me all over.”
“May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.”
“Whatever one loves most is beautiful.”
“You are, I think, an evening star, the fairest of all the stars.”
“What cannot be said will be wept.”
“Love is a cunning weaver of fantasies and fables.”
“Dawn with arms of roses.”
“All the while, believe me, I prayed our night would last twice as long.”
“Although only breath, words which I command are immortal.”
Someone, I tell you, in another time will remember us.”
Stand and face me, my love, and scatter the grace in your eyes.
“Soft as she is
she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy.”
“Once again, love drives me on, that loosener of limbs, bittersweet creature against which nothing can be done.”
“Stars veil their beauty soon
Beside the glorious moon,
When her full silver light
Doth make the whole earth bright.”
“Love – bittersweet, irrepressible – loosens my limbs, and I tremble.”
“You burn me.”
“Love shook my heart
Like the wind on the mountain
Troubling the oak-trees.”
“From all the offspring of the earth and heaven, love is the most precious.”
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
” You may forget but
let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us.”
Photo Credit: Walters Art Museum [Public domain]