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London calling – Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses at the court of Charles I

21 November 2019

The Finding of Moses, Orazio Gentileschi’s arresting masterpiece, has been on loan to the National Gallery since 2002 but earlier this year its future became unclear. The current owner has decided to sell the work and has offered it to the gallery before auction. An agreed price of £19.5m has almost been raised but for the last £2m the gallery has launched a public fundraiser: the #SaveOrazio campaign.

The painting is one of the few extant works produced by Orazio Gentileschi during his 13-year period in London, from his arrival in 1626, shortly after the accession of Charles I, until the artist’s death in 1639. The burgeoning connoisseurship in aristocratic circles had led to a king desperate for an Italian artist at his own court. The royal favourite, George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, invited the widely celebrated, and much travelled, Orazio Gentileschi. He was born in Pisa and had worked for the Vatican and other patrons in Italy before moving to Paris to be court painter to Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France. Marie was mother to Henrietta Maria, who had recently married Charles I. At the English court Gentileschi proved popular with the queen and was given several important commissions, including the ceiling painting at the Queen’s House, Greenwich (now at Marlborough House), which his daughter, Artemisia, came from Naples to help him finish towards the end of his life.

The Finding of Moses (early 1630s), Orazio Gentileschi

The Finding of Moses (early 1630s), Orazio Gentileschi

Charles I commissioned The Finding of Moses for Henrietta Maria in the early 1630s to celebrate the birth of their eldest son, the future Charles II. The painting clearly meant a great deal to the queen: after being sold in the commonwealth sale, it was returned to the crown at the Restoration, and Henrietta Maria took it to France as part of her household in 1661, keeping it with her for the rest of her life. Her attachment to this painting, among others, is an example of her own connoisseurship, which is often overlooked in place of the male collectors of the Caroline court, known as the Whitehall Group.

Henrietta Maria’s patronage and appreciation of Gentileschi went beyond his artistic prowess. When he arrived she too was new to England, only 17 years of age, and struggling to find her place at a hostile court. The arrival of a fellow Catholic from her mother’s court was no doubt very welcome, and Gentileschi’s burial under the high altar in Henrietta Maria’s Catholic chapel at Somerset House is indicative of the great esteem she held him in.

The painting he made on the birth of her son depicts the beginning of the second chapter of Exodus, when Moses is placed by his mother and sister in a basket, and found by the pharaoh’s daughter as she bathes in the river with her serving women. We see Moses held up in his basket before the pharaoh’s daughter, as she asks his mother and sister, Miriam, to take care of him. The symbolism of this piece as a celebration of the new Stuart heir is implicit: as Moses led his people to the Promised Land and was the father to a great nation, so the English prince will be a ruler ordained by God, and lead his people to a bright future. One of the Egyptian serving women gestures beyond the canvas towards a sunlit land in the distance. With its rolling green hill, punctuated with hedgerows and trees, it is clearly a British landscape: the Nile becomes the Thames and the countryside the grounds of Greenwich Palace, situating the story within the court it is painted for and mapping out the glorious destiny in store for this infant – with little inkling that within a decade, England would be at civil war, and soon after Charles I would be on the scaffold.

The exposed skin of several of the women is in keeping with the English court’s penchant for nudity in painting, while the taste for decadent dress gave Gentileschi license to paint lavish fabrics, which he excelled at. From the luxurious silks of the pharaoh’s daughter to the simpler fabrics of her serving women and Miriam and her mother, the folds of the materials and their movements around the women’s bodies show unparalleled skill. The creases in the baby’s skin, meanwhile, are delicate and refined, the work of an intricate and attentive hand. A second rendering of the painting hangs in the Prado in Madrid, painted for Philip IV, and the contrast is clear: the fleshiness of the London painting is not to be found in the Spanish, and the British landscape is replaced by a warmer continental one.

The Finding of Moses (1633), Orazio Gentileschi. Museo del Prado

The Finding of Moses (1633), Orazio Gentileschi. Museo del Prado

Gentileschi’s early Mannerist style had become more naturalistic under the influence of his contemporary, Carravaggio, but in this painting we see both of these modes at play, and what is most striking about the piece is its composition. The movement of the women’s arms and pointed fingers wrap around the basket and pull the viewer’s gaze to the child at the centre; the dress of the pharaoh’s daughter falls in a line behind Miriam’s sleeve, drawing the eye along her arms and pointed hand to the basket.

The piece was always marked out as significant, demonstrated by its high price tag in the Commonwealth Sale (£80) and its pride of place among Henrietta Maria’s later collection. The sale currently in the works would place it among the most expensive UK museum acquisitions of the decade (the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland jointly bought Titian’s Diana and Actaeon for £50m and Diana and Callisto for £45m in 2009 and 2012 respectively).

As Gentileschi’s daughter, Artemisia, undergoes a long overdue resurgence, it is fitting that he too should be placed among the greats. If The Finding of Moses is saved for the nation it will hang at the National Gallery alongside its recently acquired painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, which has spent the past year touring the country: father and daughter reunited in London, as they were at the end of his life.

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