Although this watercolour was executed in 1868, the dancing girls can first be seen in an oil of 1863 (Opus XVIII), entitled Pastimes of Ancient Egypt: How People enjoyed themselves 3,000 years ago. They appear as the principle source of entertainment at a reception held in honour of the Nubian ambassador by Phtames, a priest and scribe of the god Ptah at Memphis. The picture was shown first in Brussels, and then, after some repainting, at the Paris Salon of May 1864 where (under the title Pastimes of Ancient Egypt (18th Dynasty)) it secured Alma-Tadema the small gold medal and enhanced the reputation he had already established with The Education of the Children of Clovis (Opus XIV; sold in these Rooms on 25 March 1994, lot 84). Napoleon III was so taken with the painting that he offered to buy it for 3,000 francs, but Alma-Tadema refused saying that he thought it worth 4,000. The painting was subsequently amongst the first by Tadema to be bought by Ernest Gambart, who hung it in the gallery of his house at 62 Avenue Road, St. John's Wood. On 16 May 1866 disaster befell the Gambart household when a maid investigating a gas leak lit a match. Although the painting was severely damaged in the ensuing explosion, Alma-Tadema restored it and exhibited it at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, where it won the second class medal. Dr. Swanson suggests that it was while restoring this picture that Alma-Tadema began to experiment with its composition and painted a smaller replica, later dedicated to Andrew Gow, R.A., and now in the Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand (Fig. 1). Dr. Swanson points out that the figures of the two girls in the watercolour are more closely related to this second, later, version than to the original composition. Dr. Swanson also affirms that this was the first time the artist chose to repeat elements from an earlier composition in an independent, completed work, transposing the dancers from an interior into an open landscape setting.
Alma-Tadema's interest in Ancient Egypt predated his interest in Greek and Roman civilization and marked a move away from his early Merovingian subjects. According to Edmund Gosse: 'In 1858 Alma-Tadema painted the first of his studies in social apsects of antique civilizations; he had been studying with de Taeye the results of recent archeology and he resolved to reconstruct one of the scenes of Ancient Egyptian society' (Illustrated Biographies of Modern Artists I, part 4, 1883, p. 78.) These paintings were The Death of the First Born (The Sad Father) (Opus X) and The Dying Cleopatra (now destroyed), both executed in 1859.
Although Alma-Tadema did not visit Egypt until 1902 (a visit which resulted in one of his greatest works, The Finding of Moses, sold by Christie's in New York, 25 May 1995, lot 87, for the artist's record price), his concern for archaelogical accuracy in these early Egyptian works was paramount. For details and 'colour' he relied on Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson's The Manners and Customs of Ancient Egyptians (1837). It is also possible that the headdresses and jewellery worn by the dancing girls in our picture were copied from the Egyptian antiquities Alma-Tadema studied in the British Museum on his visit to London in 1862.
We are grateful to Dr. Vern Grosvenor Swanson of the Springville Museum of Art, Utah, for his help in preparing this entry. The work will be included in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Alma-Tadema's works on paper.