Alma-Tadema had painted a number of Egyptian themes early in his career eg Egyptian Chess Players, 1865, is now in a private collection. An Egyptian Widow, which was painted in 1872, is now in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. Joseph, Overseer of Pharaoh's Granaries, completed in 1874, is now in the Dahesh Museum of Art New York. These paintings were big, bold and ambitious, but not yet stunningly beautiful.
He travelled to Egypt in 1902 to attend the opening of the Aswan Dam, guest of engineer and project chief for the dam, Sir John Aird. [Winston Churchill was another member of the party]. Aird was already known as a great patron of the arts, and he may well have brought Alma Tadema on the trip to commission another painting from the artist for the Aird collection.
Alma Tadema, Finding of Moses, 1904, 213 cm x 138 cm
Alma Tadema was not a young man in 1902, yet he quickly fell in love with Egypt, just as he had fallen in love years ago in his travels to Pompeii. He offered Aird three subject options for the painting; Aird opted for The Finding of Moses and asked that his daughter be the model for Pharaoh's daughter being carried on the litter. Many of the Egyptian motifs were already located in Alma Tadema's sketchbooks from earlier years, so whichever Egyptian theme Aird chose would have been doable.
Since it was a very large painting, 213cm wide and 138 cm high, and very detailed, Alma-Tadema had to work on the canvas for two years. His works were always amazing for the diverse ways in which human skin, soft clothing and hard marble were painted. The fine execution and brilliant colour work of his earlier paintings were even more outstanding in Moses, but this time his lush pink flowers were shades of blue. The Finding of Moses was completed in 1904 and Aird happily paid £5,250 for the splendid work, full of classical motifs.
This work was exhibited twice by British Royal Academy, in 1905 and in 1913. And it was displayed for several weeks at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1973.
Some of Alma-Tadema's best exposure came via a very public display of his works - three of his paintings were exhibited at the 1904 World's Fair in St Louis: The Coliseum, At the Shrine of Venus and Caracalla: AD 211. These works would have been seen by millions of people, people who might not ordinarily go to art exhibitions.
Alma Tadema, Caracalla AD 211, painted in 1902
The Finding of Moses had been sold in 1995 for USA $2.8 million, so Sotheby’s New York knew what sort of price range to expect. In the event they sold the painting for $36 million in Nov 2010, nearly ten times the pre-sale estimate and a new record for Alma Tadema at auction.
The amount of money is fascinating for two reasons. Firstly The Finding Of Moses is, in my opinion, one of Alma Tadema’s best paintings. So it probably deserved to make a record amount. But it clearly shows the seismic swings in art taste. Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema was hugely popular in his own lifetime, desperately disliked from the 1930s until 1970 or so, and now (presumably) hugely popular again.
If you can believe a story told in Art News, a London dealer sold The Finding of Moses in 1955 to a local couple for $900. They paid for it in the gallery, took the painting, and left. An hour later the painting was found in a rubbish bin behind the auction room - the couple had discarded the canvas since they only wanted the frame. The dealer then offered the work free to museums in Britain if they would frame it and hang it, but no museum took the offer. Presumably there were some red faces in Britain when the $36 million auction price was revealed in 2010.
Another thing about taste. Until now the painting has lived in either Britain or the USA. After the 2010 auction, the painting moved to either Russia or China, suggesting that a taste for the Victorian revival has probably globalised.