This picture illustrates an episode in the life of Moses (Exodus 2: 16–19). Having fled Egypt, Moses was resting by a well in the land of Midian when seven women, the daughters of a priest named Jethro, approached to draw water for their sheep. A number of shepherds tried to drive them away, but Moses came to their defence.
Moses occupies the centre of this composition, his outstretched arms creating distance between one of the angry shepherds and one of the women, who gazes skyward in anguish. In the lower right, one of the sisters is visible arguing with another shepherd, while two more stand by the well, their sheep close by.
This jewel-like picture is painted in oil on copper, Saraceni’s preferred support during his early years in Rome, where he had settled in In 1598. Copper offered an extremely smooth surface on which to paint, allowing artists to capture exquisite details like the individual leaves on the trees in this picture.
In 1598, Saraceni, a native of Venice, settled in Rome, where he produced small-scale biblical and mythological subjects for wealthy private collectors. This picture is an example of the former – it illustrates an episode in the life of Moses (Exodus 2: 16–19). Having fled Egypt after committing a murder, Moses rested by a well in the land of Midian. When seven women, the daughters of a priest named Jethro, approached the well to draw water for their sheep, a number of shepherds tried to drive them away. Moses came to their defence and watered their sheep himself.
Moses occupies the centre of this composition: dressed in blue and draped in an orange shawl, his outstretched arms create distance between one of the angry shepherds, shown with a stick at right, and one of the women, who clasps her hands and gazes skyward in anguish. Her sisters are visible in the background: in the lower right, one argues with a shepherd, while two more stand by the well, some of their sheep close by.
This jewel-like picture is painted in oil on copper, Saraceni’s preferred support during his early years in Rome. Copper, which was a relatively new support in Rome at the time, offered an extremely smooth surface on which to paint, allowing artists to capture exquisite details like the individual leaves on the trees or the minute folds in the figures’ clothing in this picture.
Saraceni was strongly influenced by the naturalistic landscapes of Adam Elsheimer, a German artist active in Rome who also specialised in small works on copper; in fact, the two artists were so close in style that their copper paintings have often been confused. Here, the soft forms of the trees and the clouds recall Elsheimer’s imaginative landscapes. The rocky outcrop on the right provides a stark background against which Saraceni’s figures appear in crisp silhouette, in contrast to the wispy clouds and open skies visible through the mechanisms of the well at the left of the picture.
Elsheimer died in 1610, as did Caravaggio, another extremely influential artist working in Rome. Demand for Saraceni grew in the following years, and he increasingly painted pictures on a larger scale, including several monumental altarpieces that owe a great debt to Caravaggio. This copper was bequeathed to the National Gallery by the great scholar of ‘Caravaggesque’ painting, Benedict Nicholson.
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