We are grateful to Professor Alessandro Ballarín and Professor Peter Humfrey who, on the basis of photographs, believe the picture to be by Jacopo Bassano with studio assistance.
The subject refers to the episode in the Bible (Exodus 17, 1-7) when the Israelites, finding themselves without water, began to question and doubt the presence of the Lord and turned to Moses, demanding that he quench their thirst. God in turn commanded Moses: 'Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink'. So what initially seems to be a genre piece is in reality a religious work designed to inspire meditation upon the message that God is omnipresent and not to be doubted. Bassano famous for his theatrical lighting, 'of light always avaricious' here uses light to build the scene and deliver volume to his figures. Light also strengthens meaning lending pathos to the narrative by making the Divine Presence of God manifest through light, as taught in the Old Testament. (G.B. Verci, Notizie intorno alla vita e le opere de' pittori, scultori, intagliatori della città di Bassano, Venice, 1775, p. 51).
The highly charged emotional character of the scene and the dynamic poses of the figures reveal Bassano's debt to Durer's prints and the paintings of Raphael. Although still displaying a Mannerist preoccupation with compositional equilibrium, sophisticated design and careful placement of figures, Bassano also creates a highly original composition full of movement, tightly compressed within the picture plane, which leads the viewer's eye around every detail on the canvas. The Libro dei conti reveals how the majority of Bassano's subjects were religious. From the 1560s his Mannerist-inspired style evolved. His work became increasingly imbued with a marked crepuscular atmosphere, where religious and philosophical subjects, such as the present picture, were used almost as a pretext for painting detailed genre scenes and landscapes. His subjects were no longer placed in classical Roman settings, as were those of his Renaissance counterparts, but in more natural seeming landscapes where trees, flowers, sheep, goats, dogs and figures crowd the scenes in apparently random but, in reality, perfectly balanced, carefully rendered, equilibrium, (see M. Muraro, Il secondo libro di Francesco e Jacopo dal Ponte, Bassano, 1992).
Different Bassano compositions of the present subject are known in a variety of studio versions and copies. An example in the Prado (146 x 230 cm.) was attributed to Jacopo by Ballarín in 1990 while the Louvre has a version painted by Jacopo's son Leandro (93 x 111 cm.) The present picture appears to be a very rare version, closely related with significant differences, to a picture in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, (fig. 1; 113 x 175 cm.). The group of figures on the right part of the composition closely follows those of the Dresden picture with the exception of the figures of Moses and Aaron who have been shrunk and moved from the left foreground to the right background of the present painting. There they appear walking into the distance towards the Israelites' encampment.
Bassano's enormous communicative power, seen here in the realism of the figures, his acute attention to naturalistic details, like the cooking utensils and animals, and his humanistic concern for the everyday activities of his contemporaries, defines his unique contribution to art history and prefigured the revolution of realism championed by Caravaggio.
The Manfrin collection was one of the most distinguished Italian collections of the late eighteenth century, including many works now in public collections, including, most notably, Giorgione's The Tempest (Venice, Gallerie dell' Accademia), as well as such works as Veronese's Coronation of Hebe (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), Savoldo's Elijah fed by the Raven (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art), Carpaccio's Saint Ursula taking leave of her Father, Marco d'Oggiono's Virgin and Child, Mansueti's Symbolic Representation of the Crucifixion and Jacometto's Portrait of a man (all London, National Gallery). A Lady with a Lute by Palma Vecchio, acquired from the Palazzo Manfrin in Venice in 1857 by Algernon Percy, 4th Duke of Northumberland, is at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.