The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host

The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host (1836) by John MartinThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Executed in 1836, this large-scale watercolor is a prime example of the English artist John Martin's (1789–1854) highly dramatic narrative compositions that feature minute figures in apocalyptic landscapes.

Here, Martin depicted the destruction of the pharaoh's army. Before a vast expanse of sea and sky, Moses raises his staff, summoning the waves to engulf the barely visible soldiers, horses, and chariots.

The subject of this watercolor comes from the biblical book of Exodus (14:26-31).

“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place."

"The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen–the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived."

"But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore."

There is a ghostly figure next to Moses. This figure may be Aaron, Moses’s brother, or may represent a correction or change to the composition made by the artist that has become more visible over time as the drawing materials have undergone chemical changes, becoming more translucent and/or undergone a color shift.

The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Host (1836) by John MartinThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Infrared imaging has shown that Martin originally conceived a subject different from "The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host."

In the lower right, an underdrawing executed in a carbon-based medium (black chalk or graphite) was revealed. This underdrawing depicts a dying man on the ground surrounded by a small group of distraught figures.

The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host (1836) by John MartinThe J. Paul Getty Museum

To further increase the dramatic effect of the composition, Martin rendered the sky and clouds in blue watercolor then applied vibrant red, orange, yellow, and purple oil paint.

A blood red sun rises just above the horizon at center, tracing the silhouettes of two tiny pyramids, reminders of Egyptian might reduced to utter insignificance.

With its large scale, alternating use of watercolor and oil paint, and dramatic subject matter—ideally suited to the artist's fever dream vision of the world—this drawing wields all the visual power of Martin’s best works.

Credits: Story

© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

A version of this material was published in 2018 as the in-gallery text accompanying the exhibition "John Martin: A New Acquisition", July 02, 2019–October 06, 2019, at the Getty Center.

To cite these texts, please use: "The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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