The Mystery Behind the Painting of Moshe and Pharaoh

Seven years of restoration in the labs of the Israel Museum revealed a mysterious but breathtaking painting - and now the next mystery is who painted it.

The head of the museum's restoration lab Ghiora Elon and the curator of the exhibition Shlomit Steinberg sitting next to the painting.
Olivier Fitoussi

At the beginning of March, the exhibition “The Allure of the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in European Art” opened at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The exhibit presents the how Ancient Egypt was pictured in European art from the 17th century through the 19th century. It includes works by Rembrandt, Gustave Doré and others; but the most eye-catching painting is “The Child Moses Touching the Burning Coals at the Court of Pharaoh.” Where the name of the artist should appear, it says instead: An anonymous artist, Italian, mid-18th century.

Shlomit Steinberg, the curator of the exhibition, says the picture arrived at the museum in the 1990s as a gift from New York art dealers Lila and Herman Shickman.

When the painting arrived at the museum, it was credited to an unnamed Italian artist who lived in Verona in the 16th century. “The frame was in a disgraceful condition – completely peeled and parts had fallen off,” Steinberg recalls. When she took it to the wood restoration lab she was told the frame was a total loss and it “was impossible to touch it.”

In 2008, before the Israel Museum reopened after major renovations, Steinberg wanted to put the picture into the gallery of Bible and New Testament paintings. The frame was restored this time, and it took only two and a half months.

'The Child Moses Touching the Burning Coals at the Court of Pharaoh.'
The Israel Museum/Yair Hovav

The real work waited for the head of the museum’s restoration lab Ghiora Elon. It took seven years of work to restore the painting and prepare it for the new exhibit. “Immediately after it entered the lab and I started to work on it, one of the least pleasant things that can happen to a restorer happened: The paint began to come off the picture,” Elon said this week.

“The feeling is as if you are damaging the original, but intuitively I knew I was right. It was clear to me that if I didn’t dig inside I wouldn’t know the truth,” he said. The work included restoration, preservation, cleaning and scraping off later layers of paint.

It turns out that Elon’s intuition was correct: Behind the painting hid the original work, very heavily damaged. He examined the materials used and the damage they caused the painting, and decided it was painted in the early 18th century, and not 200 years earlier, as previously thought.

Elon’s determination was based on the materials used and their condition, and also the objects in the painting itself: swords and hunting knives used in 1700s. At the end of the 19th century or early 20th century another painter buried the original under his brush in an attempt to restore it.

“Now we need to try to investigate the matter and understand who the painter was,” says Elon.

The painting before restoration.
The Israel Museum

The decision to delve deep into the painting to find the original paid off. “The top painting may have been the same, but completely without imagination and spirit. It looked like a poster, made to order in a period in which there was no awareness of the importance of preservation,” said Elon.

Still, it is hard for Elon to criticize what was done to the painting. Only in the past few decades has the approach of returning to the original taken hold. Similar to architecture, which scrapes off the building to reach the original structure, he says.

Steinberg will soon send out a photo of the painting to experts all over the world in an attempt to discover who the original artist was.

“It is clear to us that the artist lived and saw things in Rome, but maybe further north too, from the area of Venice,” she says. “Pharaoh looks in the picture more like a Roman emperor and not an Egyptian king. Everyone is dressed as if in an Italian Renaissance court.”

The exhibition is on display at the Israel Museum from March 4 to December 1.