The Walters Art Series 

View of the atrium at the Walters Art Museum, filled with bright light, white columns, and creamy golden walls.
View of the atrium at the Walters Art Museum

by Rohini G.

This fall, and continuing into winter, Howard County Library System partners with The Walters Art Museum to bring an educational approach to art as we discuss specific works of art and the themes behind them. This series of four classes launches with The Art of Looking on October 13. Asking us to slow down and take the time to see the details, Docents Jill Reynolds and Bonnie Kind examine, analyze, and interpret artworks. Expertise gained through this session can be applied to the subsequent session on Symbolism in Renaissance & Baroque Art. The winter sessions will have an exciting and other-worldly feel as we explore Fantastical Creatures in sculpture and paintings. This will segue seamlessly into the fourth session on Chinese Ceramics, just in time to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  

Sign up for the series or individual classes that interest you. REGISTER  

The Art of Looking brings forth the concept of Artful Thinking. Developed by Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, this routine encourages students to make careful observations and develop their own ideas and interpretations based on what they see. By separating the two questions, What do you see? and What do you think about what you see?, the routine helps distinguish between observations and interpretations.

The painting depicts the aftermath of the murder of the emperor Claudius.  Gratus, a member of the Praetorian Guard, draws a curtain aside to reveal the terrified Claudius who is hailed as emperor on the spot.  Beneath the bloodtstained herm in the background lie the bodies of Caligula, his wife Caesonia, their young daughter, and a bystander.  Roman men and women are depicted at the left, overlooking the scene.
Image credit: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Roman Emperor: 41 AD, 1871, oil on canvas. Bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, acc. no. 37.165. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum. 

In this painting titled A Roman Emperor (Claudius), Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912), depicts the aftermath of a violent historical event. In AD 41, the debauched Roman emperor Caligula was murdered. Gratus, a member of the Praetorian Guard, 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.

This detail from the painting depicts Gratus, dressed in the brown uniform of the Praetorian Guard, pulling back a green curtain with brown fringe and a white and brown circular pattern, to reveal the emperor Claudius behind the curtain.  Claudius is robed in white and his frightened face is half-hidden behind the curtain.  Gratus is bowing to him.
Image credit: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, detail from A Roman Emperor: 41 AD, 1871, oil on canvas. Bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, acc. no. 37.165. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

In the detail of the painting, we see Gratus pulling back the curtain that has hidden Claudius while bowing and the half hidden, scared face of the new emperor.

What a story!

Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema, the creator of this magnificent artwork, was one of the most renowned painters of late nineteenth century Britain.

Born in Dronrijp, the Netherlands, and trained at the Academy of Antwerp, Belgium, he settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. A classical-subject painter, he became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of dazzling blue Mediterranean sea and sky. One may add that this painting, A Roman Emperor (Claudius), differs from most in the artist’s œuvre.

Analyzing paintings and sculptures, their form, symbolism, ideas, and meaning creates a space to understand and interact with history at a deeper level. Bring your curiosity and questions to the experienced and knowledgeable docents Jill and Bonnie as we embark on this journey intersecting Culture and History.  

The Walters Art series:   

Wednesday, Oct 13 at 1 pm – The Art of Looking REGISTER.  

Wednesday, Nov 10 at 1 pm- Symbolism in Renaissance & Baroque Art  REGISTER. 

Wednesday, Jan 26 at 1 pm – Fantastical Creatures REGISTER. 

Wednesday, Feb 23 at 1 pm – Chinese Porcelain REGISTER. 

Rohini is the Adult Curriculum Specialist with HCLS. She loves literature and rainy days.

*Herm: a squared stone pillar with a carved head on top (typically of Hermes), used in ancient Greece as a boundary marker or a signpost

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