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 2:5–10 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 2:5–10 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
5Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, and her maidens walked beside the river; she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it. 6When she opened it she saw the child; and lo, the babe was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away, and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son; and she named him Moses, for she said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”