The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host

Before a vast expanse of sea and sky, the tiny figure of Moses raises high his staff, summoning a wave to engulf the barely discernible soldiers, horses, and chariots of the pharaoh's army, scattered like toys by the rising waters. Touches of opaque white lend sparkle to the cresting waves, while thin washes and reserves of nearly blank paper conjure the curl, crash, and spume of water hitting rock. Safe ashore at right, the Israelites look on in awe at the miracle, described in Exodus 14:26-31:

"And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them."

All this drama, however, accounts for less than half the unusually large surface (58.4 x 85.7 cm), whose upper register is given over to one of the most dramatic skies ever painted in watercolors. High white clouds give way to dark, scudding streaks, lent luster and depth by the artist's use of gum arabic. A blood red sun sinks just above the horizon at center, tracing the silhouettes of two tiny pyramids, reminders of Egyptian might reduced to utter insignificance. With its monumental scale, its sophisticated, alternating use of watercolor and oil paint, and, above all, its subject, ideally suited to Martin's fever­dream vision of the world, this drawing wields all the visual power of its author's best works.

Watercolor and oil paint with brown ink and scraping out on paper (1836)

by John Martin (English, 1789-1854)

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