Moses and the daughters of Jethro
(Giuseppe Maria Crespi)


Crespi here depicts the scene from Exodus 2 verses 16-22 when Moses, fleeing from the Egyptian Pharaoh, came upon the seven daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian, at a well where they had come to draw water for their father’s flock.

‘And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.’

The result of this good deed was a square meal at Jethro’s house and, as a bonus, the hand of his daughter Zipporah who was to bear Moses a son, Gershom.

Crespi shows all seven of Jethro’s nubile offspring ranged to the left of the composition, while Moses, to the right of centre, peremptorily holds the group of itinerant altercating shepherds at bay. Two diagonals lead the eye into the centre of the composition to an earthenware jar held over the well by a girl, who may be intended to represent Zipporah. Sheep litter the foreground in a manner not unworthy of Bassano or Castiglione, a dog lies resting, oblivious at the centre of the foreground, while another yaps frantically seemingly about to take a bite out of Moses’ rod which he was later to use to smite the rock. A cow munches placidly in the penumbra of the hillside. The heavily laden mule and the shepherds standing behind it are perhaps the most finely wrought part of the composition and again derive from Castiglione prototypes.

Crespi painted seven differing compositions based on the story of Moses and the daughters of Jethro and unfortunately it remains difficult to reconcile them with the source literature. One was in Casa Aldovrandi , another in Casa Tardini in Modena described as differing from the aforementioned version , a third, on copper, was painted for the Malvezzi , a fourth, similar to the Aldovrandi composition was with the Corsini , and a fifth with the Gatteschi of Pistoia . Oretti mentions a copy of the composition which was retouched in part by Crespi for Casa Gavazza and as if this was not sufficient, Oretti again mentions a further composition supposedly in the house of Crespi’s friend, the silversmith Zanobio Trono. However there is a certain lack of certainty about the identification of this version since Oretti describes it as ‘the famous painting of Moses dominating the shepherds, and defending Rachel’s daughters who had come to the well….’ On the basis that this last picture is described as being ‘famous’, Merriman proposes that perhaps this was the Aldovrandi painting which had acquired celebrity by having been publicly exhibited during Aldovrandi’s gonfalonierato. This hypothesis cannot be proven and in any case the biographer has sown confusion by identifying the picture with two differing subjects – that of Jethro as well as that of Jacob and Rachel at the Well, another composition for which several further versions are also known.

Merriman states that there are two versions which relate to our composition. One of them she describes as ‘a copy by another hand’ while the other is in Bologna in the Credito Romagnolo Collection which omits a group of figures on the extreme left (see Fig. 1). Merriman suggests that this may be due to the picture having been cut down in a past relining. However, the concept of the Credito Romagnolo picture and its spacial planes are quite different from our picture. There is less depth to the composition, there are innumerable small differences to the figures and their placement and the landscape is more two dimensional. In our picture there is considerable depth of scale. The enclosing ‘sidescreens’ of trees to the left and a hill to the right in the middle distance lead the eye ever backwards into the mysterious and darkening gloom of the landscape. This has the effect of throwing the more mysteriously lit figures in our picture into much greater relief and depth while the Bologna painting appears to be shallower in depth, almost as if it was being viewed, by comparison with our picture, in close-up through the viewfinder of a zoom lens. This effect leaves the Bologna picture initially more appealing and luminous, but ultimately rather staged and melodramatic. The omission of the lateral figures to the left also enhance this ‘close-up’ viewpoint.

Merriman proposes that these three versions are possibly based on a lost original, but this appears unlikely (see below). Publishing the exhibited version, Merriman states that she never saw it in the original and that she only knew it ‘through an old photograph’. Emiliani, who knew the painting at first hand, writing in 1990 remarked on its high quality and requested the loan for the monographic exhibition in Bologna, Stuttgart and Moscow. In the exhibition catalogue in 1990 Merriman’s reservations are dispelled and the entry concludes by stating ‘Nevertheless, the execution of several of the secondary parts of the composition make it absolutely certain that this is a wholly autograph work and not the product of the workshop’ .

The painting has recently been cleaned and strip lined. An enormous amount of overpaint was removed – the entire sky and landscape had been repainted in the past and the outlines of several figures interfered with. The resulting restoration has returned the painting much closer to the artist’s original conception though of course most works by the artist have darkened with time. We suggest here that the Credito Romagnolo composition is indeed an earlier rendition and that Volpe’s dating of 1710-1720 is a trifle late and that Merriman may be correct in placing it a few years earlier. Our own painting should, as suggested in the Bologna exhibition catalogue be dated 1710-20 during the artist’s Florentine sojourn when he was working for the Medici and others. A dating of c. 1710 seems plausible and it is here suggested that this could in fact be the Florentine Corsini collection painting mentioned by Crespi.

51 ¼ x 74 ¾ in. 130 x 190 cm.
Oil on canvas

Corsini, Florence, c. 1736. (?)
Simone Lutomirski, Switzerland, late 19th Century; thence by descent.


G. P. Zanotti, Storia dell’Accademia Clementina di Bologna, Bologna, 1739, II, pp. 52, 59, 62, 72.
L. Crespi, Felsina Pittrice Vite de’ Pittori Bolognesi, Tomo III che serve di supplemento all’ opera di Malvasia, Rome, 1769, p. 212.
M. Oretti, Descrizione delle Pitture che ornano le case de Cittadini della Città di Bologna, Bologna, 1769, Ms. B. 109, Part I, c. 43 and c. 47.
M. P. Merriman, Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Milan, 1980, p. 237, no. 10, pl. 10.

Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Religious: Old Testament
Italian - Bolognese
1999-Collectanea 1700-1800.
Hard back catalogue of the Exhibition held in London and New York, 220 pages fully illustrated with 46 colour plates. £30 or $40 inc. p.& p.

(Click on image above)
Price band
$350,000 - $500,000