Thursday, October 14, 2010
(Sir) Lawrence Alma-Tadema - The Finding of Moses
signed L Alma Tadema and inscribed OP. CCCLXXVII (lower left)
oil on canvas
53 3/4 by 84 in.
136.7 by 213.4 cm
ESTIMATE 3,000,000 - 5,000,000 USD
Sir John Aird, Bt., MP, Hyde Park Terrace, London (acquired directly from the artist in 1904)
London, The Royal Academy, 1905, no. 212
In November 1902, at the age of sixty-six, Lawrence Alma-Tadema left London for an
expedition to Egypt. The occasion was the opening of the Aswan Dam on December
10, 1902; Alma-Tadema was the guest of Sir John Aird (1833-1911), the reknowned
engineer who had been awarded its building contract. Taking four years to complete,
the dam was then the world's most ambitious masonry construction project to date and
only one of Aird's many accomplishments both professional (from the re-erection of
London's Crystal Palace buildings) to political (Aird served as a Conservative Member
of Parliament and was made a baronet in 1901). Aird's successes afforded him a fine
home in Hyde Park Terrace and the resources to acquire paintings by the most
important artists of the time. Often called "St. John Aird of the Large Heart," he was known for his close, supportive relationships with the artists from whom he
commissioned works, including Leighton, Poynter, Dicksee and Waterhouse (Dianne
Sachko Macleod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class, Money and the Making of Cultural
Identity, Cambridge, 1996, p. 382). Aird's collection consisted primarily of large,
powerful and complex Academic compositions. In 1891 the already significant group
was enhanced by the purchase of Alma-Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus, its rich
vision of decadent Ancient Roman life popular since its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1888 (fig. 1). The painting hung in Aird's back drawing rooms - the private space of his wife Sarah, for whom the work may have been selected (Prettejohn, p. 96). Aird wanted another painting by Alma-Tadema and perhaps this is why he invited the artist to attend the Aswan dam opening ceremonies. The arrangement was mutually beneficial, as Alma-Tadema found himself as inspired by Egypt as he had been by his travels to Pompeii fifty years earlier (Swanson, Alma-Tadema, p. 29). As Percy Cross Standing recorded, the artist "found himself filled with a supreme delight at witnessing the scenes that had inspired his brush so many times, and not a moment... of his tour in Egypt was wasted" (Cross Standing, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, p. 110). The many sketches Alma-Tadema made while in Egypt left him with numerous ideas for compositions. The artist gave Aird three subject options, and without a great deal of hesitation Aird selected a familiar story, The Finding of Moses. For Aird, the choice would reflect not only his connoisseurship but his own achievements in the region as well. For Alma-Tadema, it allowed a return to Egyptian motifs that he had first attempted in the 1860s (with relatively somber works like An Egyptian Widow and The Death of the First-Born), while also incorporating a Biblical narrative -- rare in his overall oeuvre.
The Finding of Moses' subject comes from Exodus, chapter II. The Pharaoh's daughter,
accompanied by her maidens, comes to the riverbanks to "wash herself," spies an
"ark," "and when she opened it, she saw the child; and, behold the babe wept. And she
had compassion on him, and said "This is one of the Hebrews' children." (2:5-6). In the following verses, the Pharaoh's daughter gives the child away to her maid until he is returned grown when "he became her son. And she called his name Moses" (2:10).
Alma-Tadema takes this well-known Biblical story and expands upon the narrative in
his large composition. Secreted away with the maid, the infant Moses would not have
been carried so proudly along the Nile by a retinue of maidens, slaves, and priests.
Indeed the overall mood is one of celebration, equal parts ritual religious procession and showy parade. Held aloft on her royal chair, dressed in regal finery, the Pharaoh's daughter holds a prominent place in the composition, her soft smile suggesting bemusement that the basket holds a baby. She is at the center of the picture space -- perhaps because, according to Charles C. Bombaugh in his Facts and Fancies for the Curious, it was Aird's "own daughter who sat for the figure of Pharaoh's daughter" (Bombaugh, p. 387). The inclusion of so many accompanying figures allowed the artist to feature many of his favorite (if not always ethnographically accurate) models from past masterworks: the maidens, from the olive skinned exotic beauties with glossy, dark braids to more familiar fair skinned strawberry blonds; the male attendants with their darker complexions similar to the Roman slaves in the artist's early works of An Exedra and The Sculpture Gallery (both 1869); and the priests, their shaved heads and white linen drapery a symbol of their purification.
Alma-Tadema's artistic license is, as always, balanced with extensively researched
details. The chief sources for the objects illustrated in The Finding of Moses appear to be either from the collections of the British Museum, where Alma-Tadema spent countless hours, or from publications such as Prisse d'Avennees' 1878 volume L'Historie de l'Art Egyptien (fig. 2). This survey of Egyptian art, archaeology and ornament served as a copybook for artists, artisans and architects throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Finding of Moses also employed photographs and sketches of Egyptian hieroglyphics, paintings, and reliefs, taken by the artist during his visit (fig. 3). Indeed, the Pharaoh's daughter is shown carried in a chair derived from illustrations of Egyptian tomb paintings. Her feet rest on a stool showing the traditional decoration of bound prisoners that mark her as a royal. (It is debatable, however, that Alma-Tadema faithfully describes her as the daughter of Ramses II, thought to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus). She is wearing a diadem copied from a royal example in the Leiden Museum, and a golden shrine-shaped pectoral around her neck, of a type commonly displayed in museum collections and depicted in reliefs. The fox-tailed flail she carries at her shoulder and her gold cuff bracelet are both similarly accurate renderings of well-known artifact types. While the "mosaic" pattern of the carrying poles is a traditional decorative scheme, its muted color tones are a contrast to the bright primary colors that would have been used in antiquity. Also faithfully described is the jewelry worn by the servants and priests: faience and stone beaded necklaces, carnelian earrings, amulets, and armlets and a floral broad collar (worn by the bearer of the basket in the foreground). The composition is replete with ankhs (the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic character that read "eternal life"), including blue faience examples that dangle from pink ribbons from the bunting around Moses' basket. The child's basket is also edged with lotus flowers, a traditional decorative motif of offering trays. In addition, lotus flowers are held by the Pharaoh's daughter, wound around the ostrich feather fan used to cool her, and made into woven headbands on the servant girls. The foreground of the painting is populated by delphiniums, flowers cultivated and used for decoration in ancient Egypt. Framing the composition at right is a white ceramic pot in a painted fretwork, copied from an actual example in the British Museum; at left on a low, limestone wall capped by a cavetto cornice, sits a red granite statue, possibly copied from the statue of Seti II in the British Museum. At the base of the statue, a hieroglyphic inscription reads "Beloved of Ra, King of Upper and Lower Egypt," and is authentically filled with blue pigment.
The inclusion of so many archeological elements connects Alma-Tadema's Biblical
subject with a documented historical past (Barrow, p. 186). Yet, The Finding of Moses' object inventory would be pedantic if not for Alma Tadema's brilliant ability to enliven the work, directing the viewer's eye throughout the complicated composition. The frieze-like arrangement of the figures, set against shifting blues of the Nile beyond, creates a sense of movement. The intricately-described decorations of the foreground contrast with the far bank's teams of Hebrew slaves, their blurred shapes suggesting distance and the hazy day's heat, while the distinct rose-colored Pyramids of Gizeh mark the horizon line. The intense textures of cool, heavy red stone and smooth white pottery are juxtaposed by the light, painterly touch and pops of color in purple flower petals and yellow butterflies. The complexity and visual power of the scene led a contemporary viewer to exclaim "we want no catalogue to tell us what it represents... the local color, the archaic 'properties' and costumes, are all those of a master" (The Living Age, p. 545). In fact, some even deemed the work as the most authoritative, faithful interpretation of the famous story, exclaiming: "Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema... has put an end to our illusion that Moses as a child was found in the bulrushes"
(Bombaugh, p. 386).
Though quickly inspired and brilliantly conceived, the process of completing The
Finding of Moses led Percy Cross Standing to state that "Alma-Tadema is at once the
fastest and slowest of workers" (Cross Standing, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, p. 51).
Begun soon after his return to England after his six-week stay in Egypt, The Finding of Moses took nearly two years to finish and consumed nearly every moment of the artist's "limitless patience, loving care, and matchless skill" (Cross Standing, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, p. 112). The process was so consuming that Alma-Tadema would have time to submit only one small work, The Ever-New Horizon to the Royal Academy of 1904. Indeed the artist worked so long on the composition that his wife Lady Laura Alma-Tadema famously stated that The Finding of Moses' completion took so long that the infant was now "two years old, and need no longer be carried" (Cross Standing, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, p. 112). To many, the painting's creation was nearly as significant as the building of the Aswan Dam that helped inspire it, with King Edward VII visiting the artist in his studio to see the work in progress; he later conferred the newly instituted Order of Merit on the painter, an honor that had previously been given to only two other artists (Swanson, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, p. 29).
When finally exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1905, Cross Standing aptly
commented, "the master seems to have achieved the impossible in more sense than
one" (Cross Standing, "Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, R.A., and his Art," p. 243). Yet
while Alma-Tadema was hard at work in the studio, the tastes of Academy goers had
begun to change. An appreciation of French realism began to supercede that of
historical or literary subjects, and the fervor over "Egyptomania" had cooled. Many
critics applauded Alma-Tadema's work, which allowed "no rest for tired eyes" as "there is no daubing and smudging and fudging over difficult parts, all is accomplished and perfect" (The Gardeners' Chronicle, p. 273). An equally vocal group denounced the subject as having "too much beauty, elegance and harmony... There is nothing prehistoric, barbaric, cruel, ghastly about the scenenothing to remind you of the ferocious edict of the Pharaoh and the leader who was one day to drown him in the Red Sea... imagination is the foe of truth" (The Living Age, p. 545). Perhaps the most telling evidence of the early twentieth century's changing tastes comes in the depreciation of the painting's value from the time it was purchased by Aird in 1905 for the significant sum of £5,250 (plus the artist's expenses) to the time of its sale at auction by his family in 1935 where it made just £820. Over the following decades The Finding of Moses unfairly fell deeper from favor until championed by a somewhat surprising connoisseur: Allen Funt, the creator of the popular prank television show Candid Camera. Beginning in the 1960s, Funt ultimately acquired many of Alma-Tadema's masterworks exhibiting them in 1973 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in a landmark show where works like The Finding of Moses found a new and appreciative audience.
As suggested by recent Alma-Tadema scholars, it is fitting that a member of the
entertainment industry is credited for rediscovering the artist. Vern Swanson suggests that Alma-Tadema's greatest contribution to twentieth-century art may have been less to painting then to film. In 1968 Mario Amaya published an article in The Sunday Times entitled "The Painter who Inspired Hollywood," arguing that the artist's "emphasis on personal drama, his wide-angle perspective, and the huge scale of his works set the scene for the epic film industry" (as quoted in Swanson, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, p. 43). D.W. Griffith's panoramic spectacles of Intolerance and Ben Hur are thought to be inspired by Alma-Tadema's oeuvre. Specifically, prints of The Finding of Moses were used by Cecile B. DeMille's script writers and designers for scenes from Cleopatra (1934) and The Ten Commandments (1956) (Swanson, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, p. 43). Inspiring the directors of some of Hollywood's most legendary films adds only another chapter to the fascinating history of The Finding of Moses---one as epic as the subject it depicts and the story of its creation.
We are grateful to Peter Lacovara, Curator at Emory University, Senior Curator of
Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at Michael C. Carlos Museum for his
assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
at 1:00 PM