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Work Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

Moïse et les filles de Jéthro

Prints and Drawings
17th century

Author(s):
Prat Louis-Antoine

This drawing and numerous other sheets were preparatory studies for a lost painting of this subject that Poussin executed in Rome around 1647. The composition is known from an engraving by Trouvain. This work is one of Poussin's best-known drawings and also one of the most significant, thanks to its dimensions and the noble elegance of the panoramic composition.

An episode from Exodus

Exodus 2, 15-21 tells how Moses met the seven daughters of Jethro who had come to draw water at the Madian well but were being stopped by shepherds who wanted to water their flocks. (The episode in fact recounts the age-old rivalry of nomads and sedentary peoples for scarce resources.) Moses defended the young women and later married one of them, named Sephora. The dignity of the group of young women on the left, reminiscent of antique canephori, or basket-bearers, forms a striking contrast with the agitation of the group on the right, where Moses is attacking three shepherds while a fourth is fleeing behind the well.

A long period of reflection

No contemporary records of the painting survive, although the engraving by Antoine Trouvain (1656-1708) proves that it did exist. It was less panoramic than this drawing, developing the vertical axis instead. A town could be seen at the top of the work. No fewer than seven preparatory studies for the painting are known. This drawing in the Louvre, in excellent condition, is the most complete of the seven.

A vast bas-relief

The composition is designed to resemble a vast, long bas-relief with a powerful, rhythmic structure. Poussin carefully shaded over a preparatory sketch in black chalk with wash-it is rare for him not to use a pen to define the figures. The antique atmosphere is heightened by the sculptural aspect of the figures. The vertical lines of the architecture in the background on the left give a rhythmical structure to the space of the drawing. Note also the desolate, arid landscape in the background. It is possible that the drawing, sketched over two sheets glued together, has at some stage been cropped along the top.

Bibliography

Prat Louis-Antoine, Rosenberg Pierre, Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665 : Catalogue raisonné des dessins, 1994, II, n 303.

Technical description

  • Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

    Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro

    c. 1647

  • Brush and brown wash over black chalk on two sheets of paper glued together

    H. 17.1 cm; L. 43.2 cm

  • Everhard Jabach collection; purchased from Jabach for the Royal Cabinet of Curiosities, 1671

    3932432

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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