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Orazio Gentileschi

London's National Gallery launches public campaign to fund last £2m to buy Orazio Gentileschi masterpiece

The 17th-century painting The Finding of Moses was painted in London for Charles I and represented the birth of Charles II

Gabriele Finaldi, the National Gallery director, and Fiona Alderton, one of the gallery's eductors, with a group of children in front of Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses, which has been on long-term loan to the National Gallery since 2002 © The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery is to buy Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses (1630-33) for £19.5m, it was announced today. Behind the scenes it has already raised 90% of the price, and hopes to get the remainder through a public appeal before Christmas. The Art Newspaper broke the story of the potential acquisition in its September issue.

Although they have not been named, the seller of the Gentileschi is Graham Kirkham, who made his fortune selling sofas through the chain of DFL stores. Kirkham and the gallery have now agreed on a price of £22m, arranged through Sotheby’s and Pyms Gallery. With the tax advantages of a private treaty sale, the actual cost of the painting will be £19,471,340.

Most of the money for The Finding of Moses has been raised. The American Friends of the National Gallery, set up with money from the J. Paul Getty Jr endowment, will provide £8.5m. The National Gallery Trust, whose income derives from catering and retail sales, has offered £5m. A further £500,000 is coming from legacies. This means that the gallery’s own bodies are providing £14m towards the cost.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund, which receives government money, has pledged £2.5m, representing half its grants for the whole year. The Art Fund, a charity, is to give £1m. This leaves £2m to be raised from individuals, trusts and members of the public.  

Gabriele Finaldi, the National Gallery director, admits that fundraising is challenging in the present climate, with Brexit. “It is not a great moment, with people waiting to see what is going to happen on the broader stage,” he says, although he remains confident that remainder of the money will be raised. However, a gallery spokeswoman says that “if we are unable to buy the painting, it may be lost to the nation”, and would then probably go abroad. In the past the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles was interested in the picture, and it was on loan there in the late 1990s.

The National Gallery has long desired The Finding of Moses for its collection. In 1995, when Finaldi was the curator responsible for later Italian paintings, the gallery nearly succeeded in buying the picture, but it ended up going to auction and was acquired by Kirkham for £5m. The painting has been on long-term loan to the gallery since 2002 and it remains on display during the fundraising campaign (Room 31).

Finaldi stresses that along with the aesthetic importance of scale (it is three metres wide), the picture also has great historical significance. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, he explains: “It was painted in London, for Charles I, and was hosted in the Queen’s House in Greenwich.”

The subject of the painting is the finding of the infant Moses in a floating basket on the Nile, but Gentileschi has in some respects turned it into an English scene. The painting was commissioned by Charles I to celebrate the arrival of his son, the future Charles II, and the background landscape has similarities with the Thames and the Greenwich peninsula—not Egypt. As Finaldi says, the picture “represents the arrival of the future monarch, Charles II”. And he points out that in our era, we will eventually have a Charles III.

Finaldi also stresses that with Van Dyck, Rubens and Gentileschi working in London, it was a glorious period when Britain “was at the heart of Europe's artistic production”—a telling comment at a time when the acquisition may well coincide with the UK’s departure from the European Union.

By coincidence, a year ago the National Gallery unveiled another recent acquisition, Self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17) by Artemisia Gentileschi, Orazio’s daughter. She will be the subject of a special exhibition next year (4 April-26 July 2020).

Although Orazio is recognised as a greater artist, in recent years there has been enormous interest in his daughter, as a leading female “old master”. Finaldi says that the timing of the acquisition of paintings by the daughter and the father is sheer coincidence, but he admits that Artemisia has “now become more famous” than her father.