The Finding of Moses
Commentary by Devon Abts
Nicolas Poussin’s 1638 painting of The Finding of Moses conveys a sense of serenity as the infant Moses is rescued from the Nile. As departing clouds indicate the imminent threat to Moses—and, consequently, to Israel—has passed, the artist invites the viewer to rejoice in the momentary reprieve this story presents amidst a broader narrative of genocide and chaos.
The rescue unfolds along the riverbank, where a rosy-cheeked Moses is welcomed into the arms of a royal attendant after being pulled from the water. At the left, Pharaoh’s daughter presides authoritatively over the scene. Her vibrant golden robes stand out against the subtler tones worn by her attendants, indicating her regal status.
Behind this central cluster on the left, a river god representing the Nile reclines with his back to the viewer and glances languidly over his shoulder. The river itself is perfectly calm, reflecting the landscape without any distortion. Even the male servant emerging from the water does not disturb its stillness. Stretching into the distance, its blue-grey hues blend harmoniously with the earthy tones of the architectural backdrop, which features a fortified bridge, a pyramid, and a city.
Against this tranquil background, Poussin renders Moses and his rescuers in colours of joyful brightness. These radiant figures are entirely at one with the serenity of their surroundings. Neither Pharaoh’s daughter nor her attendants seem confounded by their discovery. Indeed, the princess’s disposition is as calm as the Nile. With one arm leaning on her handmaid’s shoulder and the other pointing to Moses, she is statuesque in her elegance: commanding, but compassionate.
Our minds may be tempted to wander to Exodus 7, when divine wrath turns this same river to blood. Yet by presenting this event as a moment of compassion leading to joy, the artist invites us to see beyond fear, to dwell upon God’s long-term promise of peace. In the small but significant miracle of Moses’s deliverance, hope is briefly restored.
Nurturing a Revelation
Commentary by Devon Abts
Created in 1647, this is the second of Nicolas Poussin’s three paintings of The Finding of Moses.
It is dawn on the banks of the Nile. Beyond distant mountains, the rising sun casts its light over an undulating landscape peppered with tropical flora. A shaft of sunlight flashes off the river’s surface, illuminating a group of men hunting hippopotamuses from a boat. In the background is an eclectic mixture of Roman and Egyptian architectural features, complete with pyramids, obelisks, and Graeco-Roman villas.
In the foreground, Poussin renders the biblical narrative as a kind of frieze of elegant, highly formalized statues that typify his distinctive classical style. He arranges his main figures around Pharaoh’s daughter, depicted in regal, gold-coloured robes surrounded by seven female attendants. At her feet is the infant Moses, who has just been pulled from the water—perhaps by the boatman rowing away on the left.
Poussin’s centralized women are the heroines of this painting. As one handmaiden lifts the vulnerable child out of his basket into the light, Pharaoh’s daughter stands protectively over him, foreshadowing her future role as Moses’s surrogate mother. Though she appears rigid, her contemplative expression suggests a revelation. She seems to understand the Hebrew child’s significance.
And she is not alone in recognizing Israel’s future leader. On the right side of the canvas, Poussin depicts the river god Nilos (who personifies the Nile), reposing against an urn beside a statue of a sphinx. Half in shadow, this fading deity gazes sombrely at the scene unfolding nearby. Has he already grasped that Moses’s rescue heralds the triumph of Israel’s God over Egypt?
Perhaps; but, as Charles Dempsey (1963: 114) notes, this does not imply ‘a simple substitution of the new order for the old’. As the Egyptian princess receives Moses into her care, it becomes clear that the ‘old’ will nurture the ‘new’. And as she gazes at the viewer, perhaps she bids us to recognize how her subversive compassion transforms the course of history.
Dempsey, Charles G. 1963. ‘Poussin and Egypt’, The Art Bulletin, 45.2: 109–19
Crossroads of Salvation History
Commentary by Devon Abts
Nicolas Poussin’s 1651 version of The Finding of Moses is rich in visual typology. Fusing his signature style with scriptural interpretations common in his era, the artist presents Moses as Christ’s forerunner, and his rescue from the Nile as a pivotal moment in salvation history.
Poussin divides his central figures into two groups. On the right, four female attendants pull the infant from the water and present him to Pharaoh’s daughter. The woman kneeling in white is thought to be Moses’s sister Miriam. On the left, the Egyptian princess is shown in opulent yellow dress, gesturing with compassionate authority as she receives Moses into her care and gives her attendants further instruction. While one handmaid stands calmly beside her, four other women rush forward, eager to behold the infant.
Poussin’s arrangement of these figures seems to evoke traditional scenes of the Nativity, conjuring parallels between Moses and Christ. For example, the positioning of the highly animated women on the left seems to echo typical representations of the magi or shepherds: as one reaches forward to clasp the infant’s legs, the others gaze upon him adoringly. In response, Moses raises his hand in a gesture that reflects Christ giving a blessing. Meanwhile, with her modest headdress and compassionate expression, Pharaoh’s daughter so resembles Mary that she has been called the ‘Regal Virgin’ (Wine 2001: 369).
These visual cues indicate Poussin may be drawing on contemporary biblical interpretations, for it was widely held that Moses’s rescue prefigured Christ’s narrow escape from the slaughter of the innocents. More broadly, perhaps the artist wishes to suggest a correlation between Moses, who leads the Israelites from slavery into freedom, and Christ, who frees humanity from slavery to sin.
Of course, this could be seen to reflect supersessionist beliefs that have prevailed throughout Christian history. Yet Poussin ultimately reminds the viewer that Moses’s rescue is situated at a critical crossroad in salvation history. At the threshold between two clusters of women, Moses becomes Christ’s forerunner, the point upon which hope for deliverance turns.
Wine, Humphrey. 2001. The Seventeenth Century French Paintings (London: National Gallery Company)
Nicolas Poussin :
Moses Rescued from the Waters, 1638 , Oil on canvas
Nicolas Poussin :
The Finding of Moses, 1647 , Oil on canvas
Nicolas Poussin :
The Finding of Moses, 1651 , Oil on canvas
Discovery to Deliverance
Comparative commentary by Devon Abts
Nicolas Poussin’s three paintings of The Finding of Moses show the evolution of his skill as an artist in the classical style (Blunt 1950: 39). In the same way, this sequence testifies to his increasingly nuanced biblical and theological insight. Setting the images side-by-side, we see that Poussin represents Exodus 2:1–10 in three distinct thematic ‘moments’: discovery, revelation, and salvation.
Poussin’s 1638 version depicts the instant when Moses is pulled from the water. This is the ‘discovery’, our first thematic moment. Even in this early painting, the artist demonstrates his knowledge of wider biblical interpretation. It is well known that he read Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews—and, intriguingly, details in this painting confirm his familiarity with the ancient Jewish historian. The most revealing clue is the male swimmer. Deviating from the biblical narrative, Josephus writes that Pharaoh’s daughter sends, not her maid, but ‘some that could swim’ to fetch Moses from the water. It is therefore likely that Poussin’s swimmer is derived from his knowledge of Josephus.
More subtly, the mood of this painting could be seen to reflect the Jewish commentator’s interpretation of the event. Josephus stresses God’s purposes working through Pharaoh’s daughter, who discovers Moses while ‘diverting herself’ at the river. Poussin similarly presents this discovery as a moment when the princess’s spontaneous mercy transforms the mundane into something greater. Leaning on one attendant’s arm as she directs another to bring the child to her, Pharaoh’s daughter is resolute, but joyful. And although the narrative of Exodus 2:1–10 is framed by violence, Poussin’s landscape is as calm as the princess herself. Perhaps, like Josephus, Poussin wishes to suggest that the ordinary becomes extraordinary in this moment as human compassion consorts with divine providence.
Nine years later, Poussin painted a second version of this biblical scene, this time capturing the instant Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes Moses’s significance. This second moment—‘revelation’—therefore conveys a deeper recognition as the princess realizes this is no ordinary child. Poussin sets the scene in the evocative light of dawn. Moses has been plucked from the river. Sunlight falls on his face as he is lifted from the shadows of his basket and presented to the Egyptian princess. This movement from darkness to light underscores the theme of revelation. And of course, at the centre of the action is Pharaoh’s daughter, who has just recognized Moses as one of the Hebrew children and, by extension, as an agent of God’s salvific plan. Unlike the 1638 version, where she gazes serenely upon the child, here the princess lifts her eyes and stares contemplatively into the space in front of her. Her transfixed expression is as haunting as the morning light, indicating a deeper revelation than the initial discovery. As she gazes out, could she be bidding the viewer to join her in receiving this revelation?
In his final painting of this biblical event, Poussin draws his viewer’s attention to a third thematic moment: the ‘salvation’ of Moses. Again, this version seems to weave together the biblical narrative with details from Josephus. The key here is the woman in white, who is shown kneeling and holding the infant Moses while gazing up at the princess. She is widely thought to be Miriam, Moses’s sister, who, according to Josephus, does not retrieve her mother until commanded to do so by Pharaoh’s daughter. Here, we seem to catch the moment when Miriam receives her instruction: the two women locked in a gaze, Miriam seemingly prepared to depart. Thus, this appears to be the precise moment when Pharaoh’s daughter decides to spare Moses’s life, thereby securing the future salvation of Israel.
However, Poussin presses the point further, intimating that the princess is also transformed by this unexpected event. In the distance on the left side of the canvas, Poussin depicts a priest of Isis worshipping the Egyptian god Anubis (in the form of a dog). As she gives her command to Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter turns toward the servant of a different God, in turn offering herself as his servant. In turning to Moses, she comes to share in the story of Israel’s salvation. Thus, Poussin’s final version beckons us to consider the far-reaching effects of the princess’s act.
It is only when we view these three images in a sequence that we can discover this theological trajectory which extends further and further outwards: Pharaoh’s daughter turns toward Moses with compassion and ultimately finds herself caught up in God’s providential plan. Might we, as beholders of these images, find our own story in this movement from discovery to deliverance?
Blunt, Anthony. 1950. ‘Poussin Studies IV: Two Rediscovered Late Works’, The Burlington Magazine, 92.563: 39–52