The Biblical scene of Moshe being saved by Paroh's daughter has been rendered by dozens of artists throughout the ages. Each interprets and depicts it in his/her own personal way, including or highlighting different characters, setting the scene in a variety of backdrops, and imagining the interplay of the figures in unique ways. The two paintings, Le Sueur's1 Landscape with Moses Saved from the Nile (1649) and Lagrenée's2 Study for Moses Saved from the Water (1785), serve as foils both to each other and to the Biblical text, helping the viewer revisit and reread the original story.
Le Sueur's oil painting contains only three figures arranged in a triangle. Paroh's daughter stretches her arm towards baby Moshe in the foreground, while a third character, presumably Miriam, stands behind them. She is, perhaps surprisingly, placed in the very center of the painting with her back turned towards the viewer and just her profile showing. Paroh's daughter seems unaware of Miriam's presence; her eyes, instead, are focused on the baby. The bright clothing of the three is set against a dark background, highlighting the feeling that the characters are alone. A hint of reeds appear in the lower corner, while in the back left corner the outlines of a city glisten.
Lagrenée's painting, in contrast, is filled with people. A tree divides the row of figures crossing the middle of the painting into two groups. On the right is the threesome of Miriam, Yocheved, and toddler Aharon, while on the left Paroh's daughter sits with her maidservant as a male passerby walks behind them.3 Miriam appears to be introducing her mother to the princess. In the foreground, a second maidservant carries Baby Moshe out of the river. The two are dressed in white and illuminated, standing in contrast both to the bright colors of the princess' garb and the drabber colors of Moshe's family. In the left background one can barely make out a building, perhaps the palace.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Le Sueur's rendering of Paroh's daughter alone with baby Moshe stands in stark contrast to the many bystanders of the event as depicted by Lagrenée. Though the Torah mentions the presence of maidservants, it is not clear how many of them were actually present when Moshe was found. If so many people were around, how could the princess keep Moshe's identity a secret? This depends, in part, on how one understands the phrase "וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת אֲמָתָהּ". See אֲמָתָהּ.
In or by the Nile
Lagrenée portrays the maidservant as having drawn Moshe from the water whereas the Nile does not even appear in Le Sueur's painting. This difference relates to an ambiguity in the Biblical text. We are told that Yocheved places the basket in the reeds on the shore of the Nile, but when naming Moshe, Paroh's daughter says, "because I drew him from the water," suggesting he had been in the river itself. Which is true? The answer might relate to an additional question: what were Yocheved's intentions when hiding her son; was she hoping for him to stay hidden or be found? See Saving Moshe.
Age of Miriam
In Lagrenée's rendering of the scene, Miriam is depicted as a young teen–ager, while in Le Sueur's painting, she is shown as a grown woman. From the Biblical text it is not possible to ascertain her exact age. In Shemot 2:8, she is described as an עַלְמָה, which might indicate that she was already of child bearing age4 but this is inconclusive. From the rest of the chapter, all one knows is that she had to be old enough to speak to the princess and report back to her mother.5 Other Biblical texts which mention Miriam are equally unhelpful as her age is never specified, allowing for many possible renderings. Indeed, various Rabbinic sources suggest that she was but 5–7 years older than Moshe.6
Age of Yocheved
Lagrenée chooses to paint Yocheved as a relatively young mother, perhaps in her 30's. Though her exact age is also unknown from the text, various Rabbinic sources suggest that she is much older. This issue relates to a larger exegetical dispute concerning the how many years the Israelites were in Egypt.7 See Duration of Egyptian Exile for more.
Where was Goshen
Both artists set a city in the background of their portrayals. From neither is the identity of this city clear. Is it meant to be Goshen, home of the Israelites, or is it the Egyptian palace and courts?8 This relates to a question emerging from the Biblical text as well. How close was Goshen to the palace anyway? If the princess is coming to bathe where Yocheved hides her son, does that suggest that the royal homes were nearby? On the other hand, how do we know if Moshe's family even lived in Goshen? See Where in Egypt Did the Israelites Live? and Goshen.