Early in his career until the mid-1860s, Merovingian themes were central to the work of Dutch Classicist, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Scenes from Frankish history such as the iconic 1861 work The Education Of The Children Of Clovis were hugely popular in Belgium and helped to establish his stature and reputation. However by the mid-1860s Alma-Tadema started to realise that paintings with Merovingian subjects were not selling well internationally, partly due to the lack of widespread knowledge and therefore lack of appeal of the early Salian Frankish dynasties. As a man who was as focused on commercial success as he was on critical acclaim, he did the only thing that he considered to be sensible under the circumstances, and switched his subject matter to something that would have more widespread international commercial appeal – the Egyptians.

In a way he was playing the lowest common denominator card, but the same could be said of his decision to hyphenate his middle name ‘Alma’ with his surname ‘Tadema’ in order to appear nearer the front of art catalogues. Alma-Tadema knew his market and he gave them what they wanted. Many of the details in his early Egyptian inspired artworks like Death Of The First Born (The Sad Father) and The Dying Cleopatra, both from 1859, were taken directly from the 1837 handbook The Manners And Customs Of The Ancient Egyptians by Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson. As he continued to paint Egyptian scenes, he continued to research and investigate various source materials spending time studying Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum in London, and he eventually became something of an authority on Egyptian architecture and design.

One of the earliest and most famous of his Egyptian artworks is the 1865 oil on canvas painting Egyptian Chess Players, shown above. Disregarding the fact that the modern game of chess depicted in the painting wouldn’t have been known to the Egyptians (they did have a similar game called Senet, or Hounds and Jackals), with the earliest forms of the game having not been invented until around the 5th Century in India, the 1½ feet by 2 feet canvas contains many of the historically accurate details that characterise so much of Alma-Tadema’s oeuvre.

The close attention to detail with the historical clothing, jewellery and furnishings, not to mention the careful treatment of the stone columns, all highlighted Alma-Tadema’s burgeoning mastery of the historical scene. While he would later progress onto Roman subjects (possibly because they had more of his favourite substance, marble, for him to paint), he continued to produce Egyptian themes works for the duration of his career, and they still retain a high commercial value in the modern age. Pastimes In Ancient Egypt 3000 Years Ago (1863), An Egyptian Window In The Time Of Dioceltian (1872) and The Death Of The First Born (1872) were all critically acclaimed works at the time and are housed at prominent institutions around Europe. The Meeting Of Anthony And Cleopatra: 41 BC, created in 1883, and The Finding Of Moses, a masterpiece oil on canvas work that was created late in his career in 1904, both sold recently for $29.2 million and $35.9 million respectively. From the critical, and now once again commercial success that his work is achieving, it’s clear that Alma-Tadema’s decision to go Egyptian has paid off.