The National Gallery (London) is asking for the public’s help to raise the last £2 million it needs to buy a painting of outstanding importance for the national heritage – The Finding of Moses by Orazio Gentileschi (early 1630s) – which would enable the work to stay on free public display in Trafalgar Square and continue to inspire future generations.
‘The Finding of Moses‘ has a remarkable place in British history. It is one of just a handful of works painted during Orazio Gentileschi’s 12-year residence in London at the court of King Charles I, commissioned to celebrate the birth of the future Charles II and intended to hang in the Queen’s House at Greenwich. There is currently only one* Orazio Gentileschi work in a United Kingdom public collection, and ‘The Finding of Moses‘ plays an important role in the National Gallery, being intrinsically linked to the recently acquired painting by Orazio’s daughter Artemisia (Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria).
The beauty and refinement of ‘The Finding of Moses‘ are characteristic of the artist’s late style, but it is the painting’s monumental scale (measuring 257 x 301 cm), extraordinary ambition, and historical importance that sets ‘The Finding of Moses‘ apart.
In this vast canvas, Gentileschi paints the biblical story of the Finding of Moses (Exodus 2:2-10), a subject popular in art during the Baroque period. The infant Moses had been placed by his mother in a basket and hidden in bulrushes to ensure his safety, following Pharaoh’s edict that all new-born sons of the Hebrews should be killed. While Moses’s sister Miriam hid nearby, Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe in the River Nile, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting. On finding the baby in the basket, Pharaoh’s daughter proposed to take him back to the palace. The painting depicts the moment when, after offering to find someone to help nurse the baby, Miriam comes forward with her own – and Moses’s – mother.
‘The Finding of Moses’ was a royal commission, executed by Gentileschi in London for Queen Henrietta Maria in the early 1630s, a few years after his arrival at the court of Charles I. It was almost certainly made to mark the birth of Prince Charles, the future Charles II, in 1630. The Finding of Moses once hung in the Great Hall of the Queen’s House at Greenwich. The paintings that Gentileschi produced at the court of Charles I are characterised by their rich colouring, skilful rendering of sumptuous fabrics, and a courtly elegance. They are highly staged and their richly decorative effects, soft lighting and vibrant colours recall the large-scale history paintings of Titian and Veronese. Of all Gentileschi’s royal commissions, ‘The Finding of Moses‘ is the most ambitious and displays unprecedented refinement and beauty.
The Finding of Moses has been on generous long-term loan to the National Gallery from a private collection for almost twenty years – so long that many people assume it already forms part of the national collection. It has been the subject of talks, exhibitions, publications, and educational activities, and is a focal point of the Italian Baroque gallery where it is displayed alongside masterpieces by artists such as Caravaggio and Guido Reni.
While today Orazio Gentileschi (1563–-1639) may not be as widely known as his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), he was one of the leading figures of the Italian Baroque. Born in Pisa, into a family of artists, his life and career spanned a period marked by significant artistic movements and innovations: from the late Mannerism of his early paintings to the revolutionary style of Caravaggio, adopted by Gentileschi for a short time in Rome, and the courtly ‘international’ style, whose elegance and refinement characterise his mature works. Orazio enjoyed an international career working across Italy – in Rome, Ancona, Fabriano, Genoa, and Turin – as well as in Paris and London.
While working for Marie de’ Medici in Paris, Gentileschi met George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592–1628), who was there to arrange the marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria in 1625. Buckingham invited Gentileschi to London and the painter left Paris in 1626 to assume a position at the court of the newly crowned Charles I. As well as his easel paintings, Gentileschi’s output in London included ceiling canvases for the Great Hall at the Queen’s House – Henrietta Maria’s ‘House of Delight’ close to the Thames at Greenwich (now at Marlborough House, London) – and the ceiling of the ‘saloon’ at York House, Buckingham’s mansion on the Strand (removed to Buckingham House after 1703, but since destroyed).
In 1638 Orazio’s daughter Artemisia came to London;, perhaps to assist her ailing father on the ceiling painting of the Queen’s House. The following year Gentileschi died following an illness, aged 76, and was granted the honour of burial in the Queen’s Chapel at Somerset House.Continue reading