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Moses exposed

CAT 140 Busby after Poussin Moses Exposed BA 127.jpg

CAT 140. T. L. Busby after N. Poussin. Moses exposed, from The Exposition of Moses, 1654, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1809. Reproduced in the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 6, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Even in this outline engraving, the elevation in Poussin’s later style is seen in the way this earlier moment in the life of infant Moses contrasts with the moment of his Finding painted thirteen years earlier. The balancing trees, the sorrowing parents, the reflection of the kneeling woman in the water, the detail of the pan pipes and the arrows hanging in the trees, not to mention the river god who is embracing a sphinx below those trees and the fully-realized city in the background—all of this bespeaks the work of an artist whose architectonic balance and classicized expression make the earlier image of The Finding of Moses look almost sketchy and improvised by contrast. Some of these details are easier to make out in Busby’s engraving than in this reproduction of the original painting from the website of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (fig. 1):


Figure 1. Nicolas Poussin. The Exposition of Moses, oil on canvas, 1654. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University, UK.

The commentary that accompanied the engraving in the Historic Gallery emphasized that “Poussin was in his sixtieth year when he painted this picture, in which are evident the vast conceptions of a superior genius. The manner in which the artist has expressed the grief and dejection of the parents of Moses, and the conscious security depicted in the countenance of the child, who is insensible of his danger, cannot be sufficiently extolled. The landscape is one of the finest of Poussin’s: the high towers, the palace, and buildings, represent the capital of a great state, and form the richest and most variegated back ground that can be conceived.” The commentary provides this reading of the depicted story: “The mother of the infant concealed his birth for three months; but finding that she could no longer secrete him, she took a panier of rushes, which she hardened with slime and bitumen, and placing her son in it, exposed him on the borders of the river, among the flags. The daughter of king Pharaoh, walking with her companions on the banks of the Nile, perceived the young Israelite, took him from the waters, and adopted him. The child, thus happily preserved from death, received the name of Moses, and proved in the end the liberator of the Hebrews” (n.p.).

Again, the commentator’s only objection to the picture is that Poussin “depicted the river” with an “animated figure” (the river god embracing the sphinx) rather than with “a statue.”  The artist was wrong to have “introduced a mythological idea in a subject taken from the Bible” (n.p.). One imagines that Melville, by contrast, would have been keenly interested in the way in which Poussin and Claude both tend to stress the commonalities, rather than the differences, between the mythological and the scriptural (see our discussion of CAT 134). As Brigstocke has declared, “the gulf between pagan and Christian art that had opened up in the Italian Renaissance is reconciled by Poussin’s strong sense of historical continuity” (385).

The commentator in the Historic Gallery noted that the 1654 picture of Moses Exposed “was considered one of the most valuable of the Orleans collection” (n.p.). Sold from the Orleans Gallery in 1792, the canvas was bought by English collectors in 1798 and eventually found its way into the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Anthony Blunt provides a summary of the care with which Poussin has constructed his composite urban backdrop. “The City of the Pharoahs in the background is composed of a mixture of buildings, Roman and oriental, ancient and modern. On the left is the Mausoleum of Hadrian in its modernized form as the Castel S. Angelo. Further to the right is a tomb topped by a pyramid, reminiscent of the so-called Tomb of Absalom outside Jerusalem. Beside this stands a circular temple, which recalls sixteenth-century reconstructions of the so-called Temples of Vesta in Rome and at Tivoli, but is also like Bramante’s Tempietto in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome” (p. 12).

Narratively, Melville’s outline engravings of Moses Exposed and The Finding of Moses from London’s Historic Gallery in the early 1800s were an excellent supplement his series of Mosaic engravings from the Taferelen in the Netherlands in 1728 (CAT 33-43).