The Israelites after the Crossing of the Red Sea in Brief
- The painting is Eckersberg's first big canvas. It was commissioned by the businessman Mendel Levin Nathanson in 1812
- Nathanson was Eckersberg's great benefactor and commissioned many paintings
- Eckersberg shifts the focus away from the motif's immediate drama of the drowning soldiers in the sea to the large group of waiting Israelites in the foreground
The first Danish painting?
This painting by C.W. Eckersberg,The Israelites after the Crossing of the Red Sea, painted in Rome in 1815, is the first real Danish painting. At least according to the art historian Emil Hannover, who in 1898 wrote the first big monograph about Eckersberg. The birth of Danish painting happened almost inadvertently, because the painting is not successful, according to Hannover. Hannover writes: "The effect (of the morning light), on which he was relying, didn't occur... but even so, the picture became the morning sun of Danish painting...".
The depiction of the figures didn't charm Hannover either. But to Hannover, the important factor here was that Eckersberg even tried to depict the light and nature. This points towards the interest in light- and natural phenomena, which Eckersberg would later master to perfection.
The Grand Commission
Mendel Levin Nathanson was Eckersberg's greatest patron and in 1812, he ordered a representation of the motif from Genesis where Moses and Aaron has lead the Israelites across the Red Sea. Eckersberg worked on this huge painting during his stay in Rome in 1815 and it was exhibited at Charlottenborg in 1817.
Mendel Levin Nathanson. Photo: Rudolph Striegler, 1861. The Royal Library
In a letter to his friend J.F. Clemens, Eckersberg writes from Paris in 1812 about his thoughts on this commission: “This large painting, which Mr. Nathanson has commissioned, will be most pleasing for me to paint as it’s a subject, which it is very difficult to imagine, but which still offers a variety of lovely groupings and figures of all ages. I have already done a first draft, of what I believe to be the best moment (to also escape the more mystical parts of the story): Where all the Children of Israel had just arrived and watch Pharaoh’s army conquered by the waves in the light of the rising sun, ...”
Quoted from an article by Inger Hjorth Nielsen about the painting.
Nathanson was a businessman, writer and editor and he later commissioned portraits of his family.
Eckersberg The Nathanson Family, approx. 1818, Oil on canvas, 126 x 172,5 cm., KMS1241, SMK
The Drama that wasn’t
Eckersberg made numerous sketches of the different figures and elements of the picture before he started the painting. The sketches were made in Paris in 1812 just after he received the commission and later again in Rome in 1814-15.
Eckersberg Forarbejde til Moses lader det røde Hav..., 1812, pencil ,pen, brush and grey washing, 235 x 373 mm, KKS1971-336, SMK
Via the early figure studies we can follow his attempts to get hold of the many bodies and their ideal places in relation to each other and the rugged landscape in which the scene is set. The drama in Eckersberg’s history painting is not so much in the drowning Pharaonic army, which can only be glimpsed at the right edge of the painting, but rather in the relations between the many human figures in the foreground.
The figures form an almost relief-like pattern up against the cliffs, and the many positions show how Eckersberg has been trained to make full use of his model studies. Here is a varied choice of academic archetypes in draped clothing, who, illuminated by an intense morning light, catch the attention of the spectator across the entire expanse of the picture.
Eckersberg Study for The Israelities after the Crossing of the Red Sea..., 1814-15, pencil, KKS13992, SMK
The art historian Emil Hannover, who wrote the first big work about Eckersberg, grabs hold of the “lack of drama” in the painting: “The composition as a whole doesn’t command too much praise. First of all, it lacks a centre, because Moses is not it...” but on the other hand, Hannover does have an eye for the “different drama”, which Eckersberg has endowed the picture with: