This large and imposing work is the epitome of the 'exhibition watercolour' and of John Martin's extravagant style and range of vision. The use of bodycolour gives it a depth and fullness of colour designed to rival the carrying power of an oil painting: in this it represents the development of a movement begun by watercolourists disgruntled at their treatment by exhibiting societies such as the Royal Academy at the beginning of the 19th Century. In its bold and elaborate technique it demonstrates Martin's determination to succeed regardless of his lack of recognition by the Academy.
The watercolour illustrates the passage in Exodus, ch. 14, vv. 26-31, when the Lord instructed Moses to stretch out his hand to release the waters and drown the Egyptians pursuing the fleeing Israelites across the miraculously dried-up bed of the Red 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; and there remained not so much as one of them. But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on the right hand, and on their left.
Moses, apparently accompanied by a rather ghostly figure of Aaron, stands on the promontory in the right foreground.
Martin has greatly exaggerated the scale of the vast waves on the left and also of the panoramic range of the landscape. Pharaoh, with his distinctive headdress, and his host are depicted as diminutive figures in the centre while beyond, on the blood-red horizon, can be seen two tiny pyramids; can these, though only two in number rather than three, be the Great Pyramids of Gizeh, some eighty miles distant from the Red Sea?
The date on the watercolour, formerly read as 1830, is now seen to be 1836, that is after the mezzotint of 1832, executed as one of the series of Illustrations of the Bible published in parts between 1831 and 1835 (Fig. 1). The scale in the mezzotint is far less exaggerated in scale, with Moses dominating the composition, accompanied by the Israelites. Unusually, Martin does not seem to have painted one of his large canvases to illustrate this subject; the painting in the City Art Gallery, Birmingham, inscribed 'John Martin 1830' and described in a footnote by Balston, loc. cit., has been revealed by cleaning to be by the Bristol artist Samuel Coleman (fl. 1816-40); see F. Greenacre, ed., The Bristol School of Artists: Francis Danby and Painting in Bristol 1810-1840, exhibition catalogue, City Art Gallery, Bristol, September-November 1973, p. 207, no. 244, illustrated).
One reason why Martin may have avoided painting this subject in oils on a large scale (but see below) may have been the vast oil painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1825 by Martin's younger rival Francis Danby (1793-1861) showing The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt (F. Greenacre, Francis Danby 1793-1801, exhibition catalogue, London, 1988, pp. 97-8, no. 22, illustrated); this, like Martin's mezzotint, gives greater emphasis in the foreground to the figures of Moses and the Israelites. This picture was a great success, and marked Danby's arrival in London. It was immediately sold to the Marquess of Stafford. Interestingly, Martin's glowing sky, illuminated by the deep red setting sun, was also anticipated by Danby a year earlier, in his Sunset at Sea after a Storm, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824 (City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, see Greenacre, op. cit., pp. 93-4, no. 20, pl. 9); this had been purchased by Sir Thomas Lawrence, President of the Royal Academy.
The picture lent by J.F. Jesse to the exhibition at Wrexham in 1876, together with two other works by Martin, may have been the present watercolour, a study for the engraving or a further untraced work. The first certain owner of the watercolour was George Goyder, C.B.E., who among his many other interests was a scholar and collector who worked with Sir Geoffrey Keynes to establish the Blake Trust. He owned an important collection of Bibles, as well as other British paintings, watercolours and drawings, including works by William Blake, J.R. Cozens, J.M.W. Turner and John Ruskin, which were sold in these Rooms between 2003 and 2008. A number of drawings were also accepted in lieu of tax and allocated to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The present watercolour achieved the record price for a Martin watercolour at auction when it was previously sold in 1991 (£107,800).