The picture was begun in 1898 for the financier Sir Ernest Cassel, but not completed until 17 January 1901. The following day the artist reported to his friend George Henschel that it would be delivered to the buyer 'this afternoon (and) will be a load from my conscience. It is now over two years since I began it and I have been at it pretty well all the time, but I must not grumble because those who have seen it say it is a success. Let us hope they are not mistaken'.
Alma-Tadema adapted the title from Shelley's 'Letter to Maria Gisborne', the epistle in rhyming couplets that the poet had written from Leghorn on 1 July 1820. Having lived in Leghorn since 1815 and struck up a close friendship with the Shelleys when they arrived three years later, Maria and her husband were now back in London. Shelley recalled their intimacy in the busy port on the Ligurian coast and how they had
'watched the ocean and the sky together,
Under the roof of blue Italian weather.'
The picture is a good example of the blond tonality that is so characteristic of Alma-Tadema's later work. To help him achieve this effect, he had the apsidal end of his studio lined with aluminium to create a diffused and silvery light. This was at 17 (now 44) Grove End Road, St John's Wood, the house previously owned by James Tissot that Alma-Tadema took over in 1885, remodelled extensively and decorated in lavish style, turning it into one of the sights of London.
When it appeared at the Royal Academy in 1901, the picture was hung in Room III as a pendant to E.J. Poynter's Helena and Hermia, now in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Poynter had been President since 1896, and he and Alma-Tadema were the great surviving exponents of High Victorian classicism. The pictures also had much in common, Helena and Hermia, which shows the two heroines of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a story set in Athens, portraying as sweet and idealised a vision of the ancient world as the Alma-Tadema. In both pictures the figures lead dolce far niente lives, sitting or reclining on marble benches in glorious sunshine while exotic shrubs provide much-needed shade and the bluest of blue seas are glimpsed in the distance.
Gallery III was remarkable that year for much else too. The room was dominated by Benjamin Constant's portrait of the recently deceased Queen Victoria, and there were major works by Sargent (Ena and Betty Wertheimer), Waterhouse (Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus), E.A. Abbey (Crusaders sighting Jerusalem) and others.
Alma-Tadema's picture had good reviews. M.H. Spielmann, writing in the Magazine of Art, found the colour 'exquisite', the composition 'consummately learned', and 'the drawing of the figures and the painting of the flesh so admirable that this picture may be pronounced in some qualities superior to...anything the master has produced before'. The Art Journal was equally enthusiastic, admiring the artist's 'profound archaeological knowledge', 'precision of touch', and 'superb technique'. As for the Times, while it quibbled about the title (obviously ignorant of its Shelleyan origin) and wondered if the painter had not been 'a little liberal' with the white marble, it conceded that the work had 'charming points, and such details as the flowers and the gauzy drapery...are as perfect as anything of the kind can be'.
Only the Athenaeum struck a sourer note, accusing both Alma-Tadema and Poynter of 'conventional ideas' and 'absence of feeling'. But then F.G. Stephens, who had been the magazine's art critic since 1861, had recently retired, and his successor belonged to a new breed of iconoclasts. Their views were not really to be superceded until the Victorian revival took place in the 1960s.
Today the most appealing aspect of the picture is perhaps its composition. Although marble terraces and parapets are ubiquitous in Alma-Tadema's later work, it is not often that he handles the motif with the confidence found here, leaving such large areas uncluttered. It would have been so easy to introduce an accent (a bird, a fallen flower?) in the left foreground, but the artist deliberately denies himself this option, as if aware that it would patronise the viewer. Equally innovative is the disposition of the figures. Who but Alma-Tadema would have cut the distant girls in half or shown the flautist from the back and at the extreme edge of the composition, even though from a narrative point of view he is central to the whole concept?
The group of three figures in the right foreground was a motif that evidently fascinated Alma-Tadema. A watercolour entitled Attracted, in the Royal Collection, is related. It dates from 1899 and was therefore painted while our picture was in progress. The artist also returned to the idea in The Ever-New Horizon, an oil of 1903 which he re-worked in 1908 and entitled At Aphrodite's Cradle (see Swanson, 1990, nos. 409 and 420, both illustrated).