In this vast canvas Orazio Gentileschi depicts the Old Testament story of the Finding of Moses (Exodus 2:2-10). When Pharaoh decreed that all newborn sons of Hebrews should be killed, the infant Moses was placed by his mother in a basket and hidden in bulrushes to ensure his safety.
Here, nine elegant female figures crowd around the basket at the heart of the composition. The woman in the magnificent yellow gown embellished with jewels is Pharaoh’s daughter. The diminutive figure kneeling respectfully at lower left is Moses’s sister Miriam, and beside her, dressed in red and white, is her mother.
The Finding of Moses was commissioned by Charles I of England for his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, almost certainly to celebrate the birth of their son and heir, the future Charles II. It originally hung in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, on the banks of the River Thames. This location is reflected in the lush green landscape, which looks far more like England than Egypt where the story is set.
In this vast canvas Orazio Gentileschi depicts the Old Testament story of the Finding of Moses (Exodus 2:2-10). When Pharaoh decreed that all newborn sons of Hebrews should be killed, the infant Moses was placed by his mother in a basket and hidden in bulrushes to ensure his safety. Moses’s sister Miriam hid nearby and watched as Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe in the River Nile, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting. Upon finding the basket, and the infant inside, Pharaoh’s daughter proposed to take him back to the palace. Miriam came forward and, having offered to find someone to help nurse the baby, fetched her own – and Moses’s – mother. Pharaoh’s daughter named the infant Moses, which means ‘to draw out’, since she had drawn him out of the water.
This monumental painting is composed of nine life-size female figures who crowd around the basket at the heart of the composition. Just plucked from the water, it is in this basket that we see Moses, plump and wriggling, on a crumpled white sheet. Several of the women lean forward to gaze at this surprising discovery: two at the right gesture towards the river, indicating where the basket was found. The woman in the magnificent yellow gown embellished with jewels is Pharaoh’s daughter. The diminutive figure kneeling respectfully at lower left is Miriam, and beside her – dressed in red and white, and drawing a protective arm around her – is her mother.
Having enjoyed an international career, working in cities such as Rome, Genoa, Turin and Paris, Orazio arrived in London in 1626 to assume a position at the court of the newly crowned King Charles I. It was here, in the early 1630s, that he was commissioned to paint The Finding of Moses for Charles’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. The painting was almost certainly intended to celebrate the birth of their son and heir, the future Charles II. The Finding of Moses certainly had special significance for Henrietta Maria since she reclaimed the painting as her personal property after the Restoration and kept it in her private apartments. A closely related variant – today in the Museo del Prado, Madrid – was sent by Orazio as a gift to Philip IV of Spain in 1633, probably to commemorate the birth of Philip’s own heir in 1629.
Together with Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, Orazio was one of the leading international painters who came to work at the court of Charles I in England. The paintings he produced in London are characterised by their rich colouring, skilful rendering of luxurious fabrics and courtly elegance. Of all his royal commissions, The Finding of Moses is the most ambitious and displays unparalleled refinement and beauty. Indeed, the women’s gowns are so exquisitely depicted here that they almost eclipse the painting’s narrative content. The idyllic landscape on the right, with its gentle slopes and lush green trees, is more evocative of the English countryside than Egypt where the story of Moses is set. This was a deliberate decision on Orazio’s part, for the painting originally hung in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, on the banks of the River Thames.
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