The Finding of Moses

Jacopo Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) (Italian, Venice 1518/19–1594 Venice)
Oil on canvas
30 1/2 x 52 3/4 in. (77.5 x 134 cm)
Credit Line:
Gwynne Andrews Fund, 1939
Accession Number:
Not on view
The biblical story of the Finding of Moses was popular in Venice. Tintoretto gives it an unusual twist by showing Pharaoh’s daughter watching as a nurse is found for the baby (actually his own mother), rather than the more typical discovery in the bulrushes. The meaning of the hunting scenes in the background remains mysterious. The proportions of the figures and the painting’s sketchy quality have led some critics to suggest that it might be by Jacopo’s son, Domenico.
Tintoretto’s Finding of Moses is a relatively small but complex composition that seems an embodiment of the artist’s famed prestezza or rapidity, so much so that the canvas has sometimes been considered unfinished (Bayer 2005). Although the figures are defined by nervous and rapid brushstrokes that give the work its sketchy appearance, the landscape is accurately described both in the foreground and distant background.

The painting’s subject matter is open to discussion. Most depictions of this Old Testament story show Moses’ discovery by the Pharaoh’s daughter following his mother's leaving him in a basket on the riverbank in an effort to prevent his slaughter by the king. Recognizing him as a son of the Israelites, she took pity on him and adopted him (Exodus 2:1–10). Instead of representing the crucial moment of the infant’s discovery by the princess and her maids, as Tintoretto does in other instances (Prado, Madrid; Cini Foundation, Venice), Tintoretto depicts a moment later in the text, when a nurse is found for the child (actually his own mother) and Moses is given to her. Under the trees’ shade, the princess is portrayed in the act of arranging the basket for the baby who has just been fed by the mother-nurse. The luxuriant landscape in the background is animated by the activities of two distinct groups of figures. On the right, three men are engaged in a deer hunt; on the left, three women, probably members of the princess’s entourage, are walking away from the river with their fishing rods.

The attention given to the landscape, as well as the focus on an unusual moment in the biblical story, suggest that Tintoretto executed this canvas for a private patron. The modestly sized painting was likely commissioned for a Venetian palace or for a villa on the mainland. At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, Venetian patricians revived the classical ideal of the villa retreat as a place to escape from the stresses of the city and to cultivate intellectual and spiritual interests (see Michelangelo Muraro, Civiltà delle Ville Venete, Udine, 1986, pp. 36–41, 55-59, 61–66). These residences were often decorated with frescoes combining biblical scenes with outdoor activities, as a way to celebrate a rural lifestyle as the healthiest for the body and the soul (for an example, see Giuseppe Pavanello and Vincenzo Mancini, Gli affreschi nelle ville venete, Venice, 2008, pp. 400–403). A similar message may be conveyed in Tintoretto’s painting, where equal importance is devoted to the biblical scene and the surrounding landscape. A villa-like structure appears among the vegetation on the far left; the building is close to a river, an important resource for agricultural and leisure activities.

The attribution to Jacopo Tintoretto is generally accepted, although some scholars believe the painting to be by his son Domenico (Pallucchini and Rossi 1982 and Mason 1999). The date has also been debated and the canvas has been assigned either to the 1550s or the 1570s. The freedom with which Tintoretto manipulates paint, the vivid brushstrokes, and the open landscape with multiple points of view render suggestive the possibility that the painting belongs to an early stage in the artist’s career.

Richard Westall, R.A., London (before d. 1836); [Smith, London, until 1856; sold to Leslie]; George Dunlop Leslie, R.A., London and Lindfield, Sussex (1856–d. 1921; posthumous sale, Christie's, London, July 1, 1921, no. 58, for £157.10 to Oldfield); ?[R. Langton Douglas, London]; [Durlacher, New York, until at least 1928; sold to Hirschland]; Kurt M. Hirschland, Essen, later Holland (by 1929–39; sold through Durlacher to MMA)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January 6–March 15, 1902, no. 149 (as "Pharaoh's Daughter and the Infant Moses," by Tintoretto, lent by G. D. Leslie).

New York. Durlacher Brothers. "Paintings by Jacopo Robusti, Il Tintoretto: 1519–1594," February 20–March 18, 1939, no. 3 (as "The Finding of Moses," lent anonymously).

Detroit Institute of Arts. "Thirty-Eight Great Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 2–28, 1951, no catalogue.

Art Gallery of Toronto. "Thirty-Eight Great Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," November 14–December 12, 1951, no catalogue.

City Art Museum of St. Louis. "Thirty-Eight Great Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 6–February 4, 1952, no catalogue.

Seattle Art Museum. "Thirty-Eight Great Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," March 1–June 30, 1952, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 110.

Ottawa. National Gallery of Canada. "Masterpieces of European Painting, 1490–1840," February 15–April 4, 1960, no. 32.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 24).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venetian Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," May 1–September 2, 1974, no catalogue.

Athens. National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. "From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," December 13, 1992–April 11, 1993, no. 1.

Venice. Palazzo Grassi. "Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Bellini, Dürer and Titian," September 5, 1999–January 9, 2000, no. 181 (as by Domenico Tintoretto).

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. "Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 6, 2012–January 4, 2013, no. 19.

Beijing. National Museum of China. "Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," February 8–May 9, 2013, no. 19.

George Dunlop Leslie. Diary entry. May 1859 [see Exh. New York 1939], gives provenance information.

J. B. Stoughton Holborn. Jacopo Robusti called Tintoretto. London, 1903, p. 103.

F. P. B. Osmaston. The Art and Genius of Tintoret. London, 1915, vol. 1, p. 48 n. 2; vol. 2, pp. 15, 188–89, describes it as unfinished, painted in tempera, possibly with some oil glazes.

J. B. S[toughton]. H[olbourn]. in Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. Ed. George C. Williamson. Vol. 4, new ed., rev. and enl. London, 1926, p. 261.

Art News 27 (April 27, 1929), no page no., ill., Durlacher illustrates it in an advertisement, as recently sold to a private collector.

Bernard Berenson. Letter to Durlacher. June 18, 1930.

Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, pl. CCCCVIII.

Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 559.

Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 3, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 549, considers it finished; dates it about 1570.

Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 480.

[Erich von der] Bercken in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 33, Leipzig, 1939, p. 194.

Harry B. Wehle. "Tintoretto's Finding of Moses." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 34 (December 1939), pp. 274–77, ill. (overall, and detail on cover), tentatively dates it 1550–55.

Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 198–99, ill., calls it unfinished.

August L. Mayer. Letter to Harry B. Wehle. January 15, 1940, agrees with Wehle's dating of the picture [see Refs. 1939 and 1940].

Erich von der Bercken. Die Gemälde des Jacopo Tintoretto. Munich, 1942, p. 99 n. 28, p. 118, no. 252, pl. 54, rejects Coletti's [see Ref. 1944] attribution to Schiavone; accepts a date of about 1550–55 or possibly later.

Luigi Coletti. Il Tintoretto. 2nd ed. Bergamo, 1944, pp. 21–22, rejects the attribution to Tintoretto, ascribing it to Schiavone imitating Tintoretto's style.

Hans Tietze. Tintoretto. London, 1948, p. 357, fig. 287, calls it unfinished; tentatively accepts a date in the 1550s.

Rodolfo Pallucchini. La giovinezza del Tintoretto. Milan, 1950, p. 152, accepts Venturi's [see Ref. 1933] dating of about 1570.

Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, p. 228, no. 110, colorpl. 110, as an early work.

Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Venetian School. London, 1957, vol. 1, p. 176; vol. 2, pl. 1282.

Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 224 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].

Pierluigi De Vecchi in L'opera completa del Tintoretto. Milan, 1970, pp. 112–13, no. 188, ill., dates it about 1570.

Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 200, 258, 607.

Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venetian School. New York, 1973, p. 72, pl. 87, tentatively date it about 1570, while noting that the color could imply an earlier date; call it one of the few paintings that seem to be entirely by Tintoretto himself.

Rodolfo Pallucchini and Paola Rossi. Tintoretto. Vol. 2, 2 vols., Le opere sacre e profane. Venice, 1982, vol. 1, pp. 241, 249, 251–52, no. A74; vol. 2, fig. 698, attribute it to Domenico Tintoretto and date it between the second half of the 1580s and the early 1590s.

Deborah Krohn et al. in From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Exh. cat., National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. Athens, 1992, p. 305, no. 1, ill. (color, overall and detail) [catalogue section unpaginated].

Stefania Mason in Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Bellini, Dürer and Titian. Exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice. Milan, 1999, pp. 592–93, no. 181, ill. (color), accepts the attribution to Domenico Tintoretto [see Ref. Pallucchini and Rossi 1982], calling it "probably his, done with the assistance of his father [Jacopo]"; dates it about 1590; relates the landscape to those of Paolo Fiammingo, a Flemish artist working in Venice who had been active in Tintoretto's workshop in the 1570s.

Andrea Bayer. "North of the Apennines: Sixteenth-Century Italian Painting in Venice and the Veneto." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 63 (Summer 2005), pp. 30–32, 34, fig. 27 (color), dates it possibly about 1570.

Peter Barnet and Wendy A. Stein in Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. [Tokyo], 2012, ill. pp. 37, 69 (color).

Andrea Bayer in Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. [Tokyo], 2012, pp. 214–15, no. 19, ill. [Chinese ed., Hefei Shi, 2013, pp. 46–47, no. 19, ill. (color)].

A very high quality seventeenth-century frame, possibly Bolognese.