Moses Rescued from the Waters by Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Moses Rescued from the Waters, 1638, Oil on canvas, 93 x 121 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, INV7271, Daniel Arnaudet © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource

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Tranquility Restored

Individual Commentary
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.