Born near Newcastle in 1856, Schmalz was the son of a successful immigrant German businessman and his Scottish wife. Mrs Schmalz had been born Margaret Carmichael and was the daughter of the marine painter J.W. Carmichael, from whom young Schmalz perhaps inherited his talent. After receiving his formal education in Durham, the boy attended the Newcastle School of Art before proceeding to South Kensington (c. 1873) and the Royal Academy Schools. There he was taught by Sir Frederic Leighton, the President, and (Sir) Lawrence Alma-Tadema, while Arthur Hacker, Stanhope Forbes, Henry La Thangue and the portrait painter Arthur Cope (son of Charles West Cope) were among his fellow students. Schmalz also managed to put in a few months at the Antwerp Academy and even had plans for a further spell in Munich, but these were eventually abandoned. Leighton and Alma-Tadema are said to have taken a personal interest in his progress, and they, Millais, G.F. Watts and the animal painter John Macallan Swan were all among his acknowledged early influences.
Schmalz's range as an artist was wide, embracing historical, literary and biblical subjects, genre scenes, portraits and landscapes. He began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1879, and he continued to show there annually while also supporting its rival, the Grosvenor Gallery (from 1883) and the Grosvenor's successor, the New Gallery (from 1888), as well as selling through the dealers, Dowdeswell's. A flamboyant, ambitious character, he was not averse to a little self-promotion, as when he tethered his enormous German boarhound, Sultan Achmet, in the entrance to the Grosvenor during private views, thus advertising his presence. It was perhaps inevitable that he should clash with that greater self-publicist, Oscar Wilde. As Schmalz himself recalled, he was leaving the Brompton Road salon of Wilde's mother, Lady Wilde, in May 1886 when Oscar stopped him at the door.
'Ah, Schmalz!' he said, 'leaving mamma so soon?'
'Yes', I replied, 'I have a picture I must get on with.'
'Might one ask, what subject?'
'A Viking picture', I answered, referring to Where is my Lord the King? [RA 1887]
'But, my dear Schmalz', he said, slowly gathering himself for a
witticism, 'why so far back? You know, where archaeology begins,
By 1880 Schmalz had joined the artistic community that grew up around Leighton, the undisputed head of the Victorian art establishment, in Holland Park, Kensington. His address was 5 The Studios, Holland Park Road, one of a new, purpose-built block of two-storey studios situated next door to the house of the artist Val Prinsep, who was Leighton's immediate neighbour. Like many artists in this community, he employed the Pullan sisters, a family of working-class girls living in straightened circumstances in New Cross, as models. The best-known was the eldest, Dorothy, who became the presiding muse of Leighton's later work, and, with his encouragement, attempted to make a career as an actress, taking the stage name of Dorothy Dene. Dorothy is said to have been discovered for Leighton by another member of the circle, Mrs Russell Barrington, who saw her standing on the doorstep of a nearby studio and was struck by her beauty. Schmalz's studio may well have been the one in question. Certainly he knew the sisters well, marrying the second eldest, Edith, who also sat to Leighton, in 1889.
The climax of Schmalz's career was his visit to the Holy Land in 1890. Like Holman Hunt before him, he wanted to gather material for religious works, in particular a painting of the return from Calvary, which he described as 'the most pathetic scene, perhaps, in the great World-Tragedy.' Exhibited at Dowdeswell's in 1892, the picture was a great success, touring the provinces and being taken to Windsor by royal command to be viewed by the Queen. On the proceeds, Schmalz and his wife moved to a substantial newly-built house, 49 Addison Road, about a hundred yards further west, in 1893. Leighton died three years later, but Schmalz continued to use Dorothy Dene as a model. There is a disturbing picture of 1898, Love is Blind, in which, with a bandage over her eyes, she gropes her way towards an idealised mask held up by a leering satyr with the features of Schmalz himself (illustrated in Blakemore, op. cit., facing p. 110). On the strength of this and other evidence, it has been suggested that Dorothy was Schmalz's lover, and even that her death in January 1899, at the age of thirty-nine, may have been caused by an abortion resulting from the affair.
Faithful unto Death: Christianae ad Leones!, which appeared at the Royal Academy in 1888, shows a scene in the Coliseum at Rome during the time of the Christian persecution. A group of naked young women are tied to herms, awaiting the onset of lions, some of which can be seen, eager for their prey, behind the gate of the archway in the middle distance. One of the girls, overcome with fear, has collapsed, and is being revived by a black slave. According to Trevor Blakemore in his monograph on Schmalz (1911),
it is the feast of Bacchus, and the pillars are painted red and ornamented with emblems of his worship, (although) the active rites are more fitted to please Moloch than the light-hearted consoler of Ariadne. Tier upon tier of expectant faces rise around the amphitheatre, whose floor is soft sand and whose ceiling the wonderful purple 'valerium' embroidered with the stars of the sorrowing heavens. Negro slaves clad in red and white direct a few late-comers to their seats. The Roman soldiers rest on their spears at the entrance, beside which sit some foreign ambassadors or guests of the great Caesar...Great thought and skill have been bestowed on the architectural and archaeological detail, every point being carried out with unfailing conscientiousness, as shown by the vine leaf half-hidden in the sand and the bleached leg bones of some previous butchery unearthed by the chariot wheels of the passing Emperor.
The girl in the left foreground, burying her head in her hands, bears a strong resemblance to the Pullan sisters as we know them from Leighton's pictures, and one of them was almost certainly the model. Dorothy was twenty-nine in 1888, making her a little old for the figure in question, so perhaps it was one of her siblings. Indeed, it could well have been the baby of the family, Isabell, or Lena as she was always known, who was born in 1873 and was therefore now fifteen. Leighton's favourite child model in the 1880s, Lena looked very like Schmalz's youthful martyr, with a mop of soft golden hair falling in a fringe over her forehead. Compare, for example, her appearance in Kittens, a picture by Leighton of 1883 which was sold in these Rooms on 24 June 1998 (fig. 1).
When Faithful unto Death appeared at the RA, it was placed in Room 6, not far from J.W. Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott (Tate Gallery). In fact this famous picture, which marked the beginning of Waterhouse's later, neo-Pre-Raphaelite style, was sometimes linked with Schmalz's in reviews of the exhibition. Also in the room were Frank Holl's portrait of Gladstone, portraits of women by Carolus-Duran and Solomon J. Solomon, landscapes by Alfred East and David Farquharson, and characteristic subjects by W. Mouat Loudan, William Logsdail, Dendy Sadler, and others.
Schmalz's picture aroused a good deal of critical comment. By no means all was favourable, but Claude Phillips, writing in the Academy, felt that the artist should be 'commended' for treating 'the undraped human form, which it still in England requires a certain amount of courage to represent,' while F.G. Stephens, the veteran art critic on the Athenaeum, thought that Schmalz had made 'a bold choice of subject.' Certainly Schmalz does not underplay the element of sadism and bondage inherent in his theme. 'Why are they all girls?' asked Stephens disingenuously of the victims. The obvious answer is that to have made them otherwise would have reduced the picture's sado-erotic content.
Nonetheless, the picture is far from being without precedents and parallels. Schmalz himself was no stranger to morbid subject matter. As early as 1881 he had exhibited at the RA a picture called Dust to Dust (illustrated Blakemore, facing p. 30), in which the main feature is a mortuary chapel piled high with skulls. As for the title Faithful unto Death, this was taken from Edward Poynter's well-known painting of a Roman centurion standing at his post while Pompeii collapses in ruins around him (fig. 2), exhibited at the RA in 1865.
More important is a rich context of works which treat comparably prurient or salacious themes. In his book Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance (1991), Richard Jenkyns discusses the Victorians' penchant for images of women as chained victims. As he observes, the phenomenon appears first in sculpture, where the artist could exploit the licence allowed him by the conventions (white marble, neoclassical form) of the medium. Hiram Powers's Greek Slave (private collection) appeared at the Great Exhibition in 1851, and was followed by John Bell's The Octoroon (Blackburn Town Hall), exhibited at the RA in 1868. Not long after this, however, the field was being colonised by painters. The subject of Andromeda, chained to her rock while Perseus does battle with the sea-serpent, was particularly popular. Poynter, Burne-Jones and Leighton all attempted it in major paintings between 1870 and 1891, showing the results at the RA or elsewhere. Burne-Jones's two canvases, part of the Perseus series commissioned by Arthur Balfour in 1875, did not appear at the New Gallery until 1888, the year Schmalz showed Faithful unto Death, but it is possible that Schmalz had some previous knowledge of the compositions. Burne-Jones, after all, lived not far away in Fulham, and Schmalz had certainly had an early Burne-Jones phase. The genre painter W.P. Frith had noted this with disgust, telling him that one of his pictures looked 'like those things of Burne-Jones, loathly stuff!'
Jenkyns notes other subjects suited to the depiction of bound women. Perseus and Andromeda had their medieval counterpart in scenes of knights errant rescuing damsels tied to trees. Certain scenes in Burne-Jones's St George series (1865-7), Millais' Knight Errant (1870; Tate Gallery) and Frank Dicksee's Chivalry (1885; Forbes Magazine Collection) fall into this category.
Women as naked or semi-naked victims, captive if not actually chained, were also central to the many paintings of slave markets or harems. These too ministered to male fantasies of sexual domination, combining, as William Michael Rossetti said of Edwin Long's Babylonian Marriage Market (Royal Holloway College), 'ancient fact and modern innuendo.' Long's painting, which caused a sensation when it appeared at the RA in 1875, is the most famous example of the genre, but in some ways more relevant here is Ernest Normand's Bitter Draught of Slavery (Bradford). Seen at the RA in 1885, the picture shows a terrified young woman, crouching and totally naked, being offered by a swarthy dealer to an Eastern potentate. What makes it significant in the present context is that it was painted by a neighbour of Schmalz's only three years before the exhibition of Faithful unto Death. Normand and his wife Henrietta Rae, herself a specialist in the female nude, had taken a studio in Holland Park Road in 1885 and, like Schmalz, were protégés of Leighton. In fact Faithful unto Death may be seen as one of a number of pictures painted by this cricle of academic artists in which women feature in scenes of antique violence - usually, though not always, as victims. Solomon J. Solomon, who joined the community in 1887, and, as already noted, had a portrait hung close to Faithful unto Death in 1888, was another major exponent. His Ajax and Cassandra (1886; Ballarat, Australia), Samson (1887; Liverpool) and Niobe (1888) are all key examples, laden with erotic overtones and close to Schmalz's picture in date.
As for the specific context which Schmalz chooses for his horror story - the cruelty of the Roman Empire, the blood-lust of the amphitheatre, the unspeakable agony of being torn apart by lions - this too finds many echoes in Victorian academic painting, if not actually among the productions of Holland Park. In 1881 Briton Riviere had painted A Roman Holiday (Melbourne), a picture inspired by a famous line in Byron's Childe Harold ('Butchered to make a Roman holiday'), showing the ghastly results of a contest between men and wild beasts in the circus. Within a year or two of Schmalz exhibiting his picture, Riviere would also take up the theme of sacrificing righteous humans to lions, painting two versions of Daniel in the Lion's Den (Manchester and Liverpool).
Alma-Tadema, who, like Leighton, was one of Schmalz's early mentors, also provides some telling comparisons among his elaborate reconstructions of the ancient world. To the very same RA that included Faithful unto Death Tadema contributed The Roses of Heliogabalus (fig. 3), illustrating a particularly sadistic incident from the life of one of the most debauched of the Roman Emperors. Then there is his late masterpiece Caracalla and Geta (private collection), exhibited at the RA in 1907. The picture shows a gala performance in the Coliseum arranged by the Emperor Septimius Severus in 203 AD. Bear baiting is the gruesome entertainment on offer, but the feature which particularly recalls Schmalz's canvas is the tier upon tier of carefully delineated spectators.
In the final analysis, however, Schmalz's picture finds it closest equivalents not among the works of fellow English academic painters but those of their French counterparts, so many of whom were adept at evoking a frisson in their audience by the graphic depiction of some melodramatic scene from ancient or modern history. Nor is this really surprising, given Schmalz's spell of training abroad. True, this was not in Paris, but many of his fellow RA students and subsequent associates, including Arthur Hacker, Stanhopes Forbes, Henry La Thange, Solomon J. Solomon and the Normands, had enjoyed just such a pupillage in one of the great Paris studios.
More than one critic, in commenting on Faithful unto Death, compared it to the work of some contemporary French master. Claude Phillips mentioned two, Evariste Vital Luminais (1822-1896), a highly popular exponent of medieval subjects, often Breton in inspiration and invariably violent; and Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), who specialised in spine-chilling medieval ecclesiastical psychodramas but could equally well turn his hand to the horros of the ancien régime or the last moments of the Emperor Maximilian (Salon of 1882).
However, as F.G. Stephens observed, the closest parallel of all is presented by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), whose painting The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer (fig. 4) dates from 1883. Now in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, whose founder commissioned it, the picture is generally regarded as one of the artist's greatest historical works. Though probably never exhibited in France, it was famous through the medium of photogravures and thus almost certainly familiar to Schmalz, whose picture is iconographically similar even if its composition is very different. Gérôme returned to the theme in La Rentrée des félins (Gathering up the Lions in the Circus) of 1902 (fig. 5). The picture shows an amphitheatre after a scene of carnage, wallowing in every harrowing or disgusting detail which the subject suggests.
During the First World War, Schmalz responded to anti-German feeling by adopting his mother's maiden name, Carmichael. Our picture is in fact signed 'Herbert Carmichael', whereas the reproduction in Blakemore's monograph shows that it was originally signed 'Herbert Schmalz'. Close examination of the passage in question confirms that the artist re-signed the picture with his later name, though in what circumstances we shall probably never know. There is certainly no question of the picture being a later version. Its dimensions are similar to those of the picture illustrated in 1911, and the details of the composition correspond exactly.
The inscription on the back of the picture seems to be a quotation, but its source has not been identified. It is undoubtedly in Schmalz's own rather stylish handwriting, which is known from the signature which occurs opposite the title-page on copies of the special de luxe edition of Blakemore's book. The address, 49 Addison Road, proves that the inscription was written after the artist moved to this house in 1893, five years after the picture had been exhibited.