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.
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.”