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The Finding of Moses

Tommaso Maria Conca, Italian, 1734 - 1822


Brush and brown ink and brown wash, and beige and white opaque watercolor on blue wove paper

Sheet: 13 15/16 x 19 1/2 inches (35.4 x 49.5 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Bequest of Anthony Morris Clark, 1978

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Conca produced fresco decorations for the Villa Borghese in Rome and for the vault of an important room in Pope Pius VI's ambitious new sculpture museum in the Vatican. In this drawing of an Old Testament subject, several principles of Neoclassical draughtsmanship are evident in the friezelike and carefully balanced composition, the firm contours of the figures, and the work's high degree of finish.

Additional information:
  • PublicationItalian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    This drawing demonstrates Conca’s integration of the Neoclassical style inspired by Anton Raphael Mengs with the lessons he had learned from his first mentor, Sebastiano Conca. Sebastiano had been a pupil of the great Neapolitan painter Francesco Solimena, whose work in many ways prefigured Neoclassicism (Waterhouse, Ellis K. Italian Baroque Painting. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon, 1962, p. 196). Some of the features of Solimena’s style, which Sebastiano transmitted to his young cousin, are seen in the present drawing: the strong contrasts of light and shadow and the centripetal rather than centrifugal compositional arrangement.

    The drawing also demonstrates Tommaso’s diligent attention to the principles of Neoclassicism as propounded by Mengs, whose influential prescriptions for the correct rules that must govern art, published in his various treatises on the principles of art and the appropriate models for artists to follow, are particularly evident in Conca’s later work, of which the present drawing is an example. The drawing was, in fact, formerly attributed to Mengs and can be read as a visual encyclopedia of his principles, with its friezelike disposition of figures with firm and unambiguous contours, all uniformly depicted in rational equilibrium, their surfaces resembling the plaster casts that Mengs recommended as models. The drawing is highly polished compared with other sheets by Conca (see, for example, A Scholar Collects: Selections from the Anthony Morris Clark Bequest, nos. 75-78), suggesting that it was intended as an autonomous work of art, and, indeed, no painting is known for which it could be preparatory.

    In earlier periods a religious subject would have pointed to ecclesiastical patronage, but by the late eighteenth century this was no longer necessarily the case. A comparable drawing by Conca, Moses and Joshua, was done in connection with the artist’s decorative project for the Palazzo Doria in Rome, a secular commission (Visions of Antiquity: Neoclassical Figure Drawings, under no. 80). The incident depicted in the Philadelphia drawing, represented in literal detail, is taken from Exodus 2:1-10, which relates how the pharaoh of Egypt, who was holding the Israelites in forced labor, felt threatened by their steady increase in population and decreed that all their male babies were to be cast into the river. The wife of a Levite, however, so prized her child that she made a basket of pitch-lined papyrus and deposited it in the reeds, to be minded by the baby’s sister. There it was providentially discovered by the pharaoh’s daughter, out strolling with her handmaidens. The drawing guides us by gesture and body language through the event, including the detail at the right, which shows the sister offering to find a Hebrew nurse to suckle the babe. The true mother is being summoned from offstage to raise the baby for the pharaoh’s daughter, who will adopt him and name him Moses.

    As in all Neoclassical depictions, the subject must have a moral, and here there are many possibilities: the harmony of natural and adoptive maternal love, the compassion of the privileged toward the disempowered, or perhaps simply the virtue of generosity. The pristine contours and the illusion of smooth bas-relief may reflect Conca’s familiarity with antique cameos. The sheet has been tentatively dated on the basis of style to between 1810 and 1820 (see Thomas William Sokolowski in A Scholar Collects: Selections from the Anthony Morris Clark Bequest, p. 89). Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 67.

    Wood, William P. “Report of the President.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 74, no. 323 (December 1978), p. 4;
    Philadelphia Museum of Art. A Scholar Collects: Selections from the Anthony Morris Clark Bequest. Exhibition catalogue edited by Ulrich W. Hiesinger and Ann Percy. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1980. [Later shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 17 April-13 June 1982.], no. 78, fig. 78;
    Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Visions of Antiquity: Neoclassical Figure Drawings. Exhibition catalogue by Richard J. Campbell, Victor Carlson, et al. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1993, no. 80, repro.