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The Finding of Moses

CAT 139 Cooke after Poussin The Finding of Moses BA 118.jpg

CAT 139. W. Cooke after N. Poussin. The Finding of Moses, from the painting in the Louvre, 1638. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe. Reproduced in the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 1, 1807, facing p. 267. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

This engraving reproduces another Poussin painting from the collection of the Louvre. The Finding of Moses is one of many that Poussin painted on the subject of Moses from Old Testament scripture. Friedlaender points out that, “for Poussin, subjects from the Old Testament possessed a primarily artistic and emotional interest. He seems to have been fascinated by the stories of Moses and the Exodus, and did not consider them from an exclusively religious point of view” (53). After painting this early version of The Finding of Moses in 1638, Poussin returned to the same subject in 1647 and again in 1651 (Blunt, nos. 12-14). Other Mosaic subjects highly praised by Friedlaender include “the four spectacular miracles of Moses that Poussin painted one after the other in the short period” between 1635 and 1639: Moses Striking the Rock, the Passage of the Red Sea, the Adoration of the Golden Calf, and the Gathering of the Manna (53). Much later Poussin returned to the very beginning of the story of Moses for Moses Exposed in 1654, another image that Melville acquired in an outline engraving from the Historic Gallery (CAT 140).

The 1638 Finding of Moses depicted here is notable for the grace of the Pharoah’s daughter who, in the ensemble of her small entourage, decides to save the boy who has been left to die. The body of the servant who is leaning over to take the boy resembles somewhat those of the female figures in Flaxman’s outline drawings illustrating Homer and Aeschylus published in London in 1803 (see CAT 2-5). The commentary that accompanies this image in volume 1 of the Historic Gallery in 1807 stresses that this is only one of two “celebrated” pictures by which Poussin has depicted this particular subject; the differences between them present “incontestable proof that Poussin possessed the art of representing the same subject in various ways, without repetition of imagery, or the smallest deviation from the simplicity, correctness, and purity of style, to which he owes his celebrity” (1:267).

In addition to the grace of the female figures in the foreground, the commentator admires the “air of paintings of antiquity” conveyed by the pyramidical city, reminiscent of ancient Memphis, rising behind the men in a small boat. This commentator, however, does object to Poussin having personified the Nile in the figure of the river god who presents the baby to woman who receives it. Although Poussin does this successfully in other works, the “introduction of mythology and allegory, in sacred subjects, is nevertheless difficult to approve” (1:267-68). The same objection is made to Busby’s engraving of Moses Exposed, a later painting whose action is the prequel to this one in Biblical, rather than painterly, time.