Collection Online

The Crossing of the Red Sea

oil on canvas
155.6 × 215.3 cm
Accession Number
International Painting
Credit Line
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1948
This digital record has been made available on NGV Collection Online through the generous support of Digitisation Champion Ms Carol Grigor through Metal Manufactures Limited
Gallery location
17th to 18th Century European Paintings Gallery
Level 2, NGV International

In The Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, one of the greatest masters of the Baroque period, has portrayed a scene from the Old Testament book of Exodus. After the Israelites escaped from Egypt and a life of enslavement, God miraculously parted the Red Sea to facilitate their flight, allowing them to cross safely to the Sinai peninsula. Poussin has painted the dramatic moment just after Pharaoh’s army, which has been pursuing the Israelites, has been swept away by the returning waters (Exodus 14:26–28). Moses, standing prominently at the right, gestures in thanks to God, who takes the form of a large, dark cloud. The exquisitely modelled foreground figure group, and the various groupings in the middle distance and background, provide a key to the construction of the painting, together functioning as a kind of S-curve that leads the eye on a meandering path from the dramatic action at the water’s edge to the calm of the distant countryside. The artist’s strategic repetition of colours assists the movement of the eye through the composition, while a unifying visual rhythm is established by the recurring motif of an arm extended towards heaven.

Nicolas Poussin’s The Crossing of the Red Sea and its pendant, The Adoration of the Golden Calf (National Gallery, London) were commissioned in 1632 for the wealthy Amedeo dal Pozzo, marchese di Voghera (1579–1644), the elder cousin of Poussin’s most influential Roman patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657). Poussin had moved to Rome from France six years earlier and his reputation was on the rise at this time.

Amadeo owned a grand palazzo in Turin and wanted to decorate one room with scenes of the life of Moses. He commissioned two paintings from Poussin and one each from Pietro da Cortona and his former pupil Francesco Romanelli, both of whom who were among the elite of Rome’s large artistic community.

The Crossing of the Red Sea is among Poussin’s finest and most spectacular paintings. He has precisely layered frieze-like figure groups that diminish in scale to create depth in the composition. He has also manipulated colour and light to integrate this extremely complex composition of no fewer than eighty-nine figures. Contrasting rich colours distinguish individuals, link disparate groups and draw the eye to key parts of the painting. Colour helps create the visual harmony that is the hallmark of Poussin’s finest work one of his outstanding contributions to Baroque painting. It is a legacy that influenced many generations of artists who followed him, including Jacques-Louis David and Paul Cézanne.