UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 1)

This exercise comprises two annotations – one a work by Bernini, Caravaggio or Poussin, the second a painting by an artist from the Low Countries.

I have chosen The Crossing of the Red Sea (1632-34) by Poussin and Two old men disputing (1628) by Rembrandt. Once again my choice was driven by availability and my strong desire to see in person the works I study. Both paintings are held at the National Gallery of Victoria. In this post I will focus on the work by Poussin. A later post will consider the Rembrandt. I also need to compare and contrast the two annotations.

Nicholas Poussin The Crossing of the Red Sea

Nicholas Poussin
The Crossing of the Red Sea
Image provided by National Gallery of Victoria

The painting shows a biblical scene from Exodus. Called by his God, Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. When the Eyptians gave chase, God parted the waters of the Red Sea giving the Israelites a dry path. In the painting the Israelites have reached dry land. Guided by God, Moses has stretched out his hand and the waters have flowed back, overwhelming the chariots and horsemen of the Pharaoh’s army. Horses can still be seen struggling in the rush of the water. Some of the Israelites have turned to give thanks and praise for their deliverance. Others are salvaging weapons and arms. More have walked on, continuing the journey to their promised land.

Viewing the painting
The painting has recently had extensive conservation work and the light, bright colours in the image correspond fairly well to the actual painting (on my screen at least), although the full spread of values and crispness and detail of the original have been lost.

ngv_interior_2My first impressions when seeing it was that it is very large – 155.6 x 215.3 cm. My second was that I couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t work out what to look at, it was all a confused jumble my eyes roamed around without any path or guidance. Taking the photo of the gallery I was standing in a large doorway with Nicolas Régnier’s Hero and Leander (see 22-July-2103), so human and personal in scale and emotion, just behind me. In front of me, the Crossing. I stood back, I stood close, I sat mid-way. I couldn’t connect.

ngv_4271_radiatepoussin_frameA few people came by and we chatted about where we were visiting from or Charlton Heston or the amazing frame. I tried to find lines in the composition, but wasn’t convinced. It just eluded me.

There are no buildings to be seen, only a jumbled sea, people milling in confusion, and a vast distance of land behind. Small clusters have formed in the throng. They give thanks, or comfort each other, or gather salvage, or trudge on. Moses stands quite apart from the people he is leading, looking back.

It was only on my second visit, having done some reading overnight, that I saw the red column at the very edge on the right – the pillar of fire that was the visible form of God guiding the Israelites. Not the shadow of the frame after all! In fact possibly the elaborate frame was itself a distraction from the intended flow for the eye. The figure of Moses together with the column of fire would seem to be the focus of the painting – strange when they are so far to one side, isolated, and Moses smaller than other figures in the painting. There is also that pull of the vast land, and the mountains and dawn light in the sky in the left.

There are clearly different levels of finish for major figures in the painting. Places in the sky seemed almost bare, although it wasn’t possible to see closely.

History of the painting
This painting and its pendant (the other of a pair of paintings) The Adoration of the Golden Calf were commissioned for Amedeo dal Pozzo, Marchese di Voghera from Turin, by Cassiano dal Pozzo in 1632. They were completed by Poussin in 1634. Cassiano worked as secretary for Cardinal Francesco Barberini, one of the powerful Barberini family. From the dal Pozzo family the two paintings passed though a number of collections in France and eventually in 1741 were sold to Sir Jacob Bouverie in England. In 1945 the Adoration was sold to the National Gallery in London and in 1948 the Crossing was sold to the National Gallery of Victoria (Benson, 2012).

Interestingly this history, so neat and clear, was less clear fairly recently. In 1971 Helsdingen reviewed then-current theories placing the painting of the Crossing later than the Calf, perhaps 1637-38. Based on his analysis of composition, motifs and stylistic differences, Helsdingen suggested the Crossing was the earlier work, perhaps 1633 (Helsdingen, 1971). Benson cites a paper published in 2000 (Cifani and Monetti, 2000) which established payments by installments for the two paintings from 1632, recorded in banking details.

The Crossing of the Red Sea underwent a major restoration in 2011, documented in an online conservation treatment diary at and the book Poussin: the Crossing of the Red Sea: a conservation project (Villis, 2012). Both sources expose some of the difficult and delicate choices that must be made in a conservation project. If you follow the link above to the project diary, there is a part describing where what had appeared as a face and is now returned to being the back of a head – all part of a balance between “fidelity to the image, the artist’s hand and the physical history of the picture” (Villis, 2012 p. 25).

More to the point for my current study, it was recognised that there had been darkening of colours and tones. In particular changes in middle tones could cause increased contrasts in the image, causing some elements to appear isolated, other areas flat, and space indeterminate (Villis, 2012, p.13). Research carried out as part of the conservation project included examination of a well-preserved replica from the 1680s, once presumed lost. This valuable resource allowed understanding of “the full harmonies of Poussin’s carefully arranged tones and colours, along with his integration of figures into the landscape” (Villis, 2012 p. 24). However in maintaining that fine conservation balance, intervention in the original was limited to a carefully judged minimum. Writing about the outcomes of the conservation, Benson observed that it had revealed Poussin’s manipulation of light – “a discernible sense of unity between land, sea and sky has returned, making it far more visually coherent and appealing”. Perhaps, given my current state of development and understanding, some of those changes over time that are still in place contributed to my difficulties in reading the painting.

Helsingen’s work was published decades before the recent conservation. Despite this, and despite subsequent scholarship overturning some of his conclusions, I found Helsingen’s analysis of the Crossings composition rather comforting given my own struggle. He saw “…virtually no attempt … to co-ordinate large groups of figures” which remained isolated rather than linked. Helsingen believed “Poussin has failed to achieve a coherence”, “the attitudes of the figures and the fall of the drapery display an ambivalence and lack of consistency” and “the indistinctness of many figures is such that the observer is unable to acquire an insight into the spatial relationships between the figures and the groups” (Helsingen, 1971, pp. 66-67).

ngv_4271_zigzagHelsingen did mention a zigzag line suggesting depth, which I have traced out on this version. It’s not a complete answer – there is a horizontal frieze-like band of figures across the centre which isn’t included. On the other hand that sense of depth is supported by changes in saturation and value. I would say the sense of enormous space is one of the undeniable successes of the painting.

ngv_4271_ratiosAnother helpful approach was suggested to me by work at It was only after I created this version of the image that I realised that this link was to another OCA student’s learning log! It certainly appears that diagonals and the use of golden sections helps in organizing the placement of major figures and that central frieze.

However I feel that there is more than geometry or changes in appearance underlying the difficulty of the composition. A paragraph in a 1994 exhibition review by Robert Hughes had me scratching my head (Hughes, 1994). Hughes was reviewing a retrospective of Nicolas Poussin at the Grand Palais in Paris (I am fairly sure the Crossing was not included, presumably because of its fragile state). Referring to The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem Hughes wrote “With its structure of color, bound by a repeated accent of red, with its perspective lines, its golden-section ratios, its echoes and reversals of pose and gesture, and the contrast of the milling crowd of figures with the stately columns of the temple, it is an incredibly complicated pictorial machine.” Most of this sounds applicable to my focus work – but further description just didn’t jell with the image I found on the internet. Eventually I discovered two pictures on this theme by Poussin – The Destruction and Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem (1625–26) in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (, the second Zerstörung des Tempels in Jerusalem durch Titus (1638/1639) in Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (

Both are crowded battle scenes. The earlier one has more information in a sense – the flames on the roof of the temple can be seen, while in the later version major figures are looking out of the picture frame. However the space and detail in the foreground of the later version gives a more horrible concreteness to the conflict. The dates of the two works straddle that of The Crossing of the Red Sea. In my eyes elements of each Jerusalem can be seen in Poussin’s handling of the Crossing. It could be that this chronology suggests a progression in Poussin’s handling of large crowd scenes. Alternatively, Poussin may have chosen the milling confusion of the Crossing in “simple” reflection of the milling confusion of a crowd at a highly dramatic moment.

The Crossing of the Red Sea, together with The Adoration of the Golden Calf and other paintings illustrating the life of Moses commissioned from other artists at the same time, presumably met the requirements of Amedeo dal Pozzo on whose behalf the work was commissioned from Poussin. It is large, imposing and grand. Together with its subject and content this would demonstrate the learning, devotion and wealth of its owner.

The documentation of the recent conservation effort demonstrates that the painting on view is the best possible presentation to a modern viewer, although it cannot be entirely the visual experience first produced by Poussin.

As one of those modern viewers, earnest but not learned, I have clearly struggled to understand and appreciate this painting. It is not immediately engaging or giving. Imposing, grand and scholarly does not equate to approachable or warm. I did not easily see the drama of the moment. The different reactions of the participants, their confusion, wonder, thankfulness and stoicism, the scale of the historical incident, became a visual confusion for me.

However I feel that the painting may reward the effort needed to appreciate it. With reading and thinking in the time since my visit, perhaps I understand a little more of the intention and the presentation of the painting. Unfortunately I think that to get further I would need to see the painting again in person. I hope that is feasible some time in the future.

Reference List
Benson, L. (2012) A Brief History of The Crossing of the Red Sea In: Villis, C. et al Poussin: the Crossing of the Red Sea: a conservation project Melbourne: The Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 1-5.

Cifani, A. and Monetti, F. (2000) The dating of Amedeo dal Pozzo’s paintings by Poussin, Pietro da Cortona and Romanilli. Burlington Magazine 142, September 2000, pp. 561-64. Cited in Benson, L. (2012) A Brief History of The Crossing of the Red Sea In: Vissis, C. Poussin: the Crossing of the Red Sea: a conservation project Melbourne: The Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, p. 35.

van Helsdingen, H.W. (2971) Poussin’s Drawings for the Crossing of the Red Sea. Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 5(1), pp. 64-74. [online] Available from: [Accessed 5/9/2013]

Hughes, R. (1994) ‘Decorum and fury’, Time, 144(23), p. 86, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 7 September 2013.

Villis, C. et al (2012) Poussin: the Crossing of the Red Sea: a conservation project Melbourne: The Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria.

UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 1)
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project two: The age of Baroque
Exercise: Annotate two seventeenth-century art works

1 Response to “UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 1)”

  1. 1 UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 2) | Fibres of Being Trackback on September 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm

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Fabulous figure sculpting workshop with Kassandra Bossell!

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