The History of the Series
This series depicting The Life of Moses consisted of ten subjects, eight of which were designed by Nicolas Poussin (1594 - 1665) and two, including this subject, by Charles Le Brun (1619 - 1690). This particular subject was painted in 1649 for the refectory of the Pères de Picpus. From these paintings, which had never been intended to be copied as tapestries, six painters prepared the cartoons for the weaving of the series by the Royal Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture. M. de Bonnemer is recorded as the author of this subject. These cartoons were recorded in an inventory in the atelier in 1690 and later as ruinès in 1736. The first weaving of the series was for Louis XIV and must have taken place after 1683 when the King purchased the last two paintings from Poussin. That set, and another identical one were supplied to Louis XIV in 1689 and one was hung at Fontainebleau while the other was at Versailles. The third weaving of the subject, also containing metal-thread like the first two, was split, and four tapestries, not including this subject, remained in the Mobilier de la Couronne, while six, including this subject, were given by Louis XIV to his brother, Philippe I de France, duc d'Orléans, (1640 - 1701). In this third weaving, this particular subject was woven in the Gobelins workshop of Jean-Baptiste Mozin (d. 1693). The fourth weaving, and the last to contain metal-thread, was woven by Jean Le Febvre (d. 1700), who at least pretended that the King had commissioned the set from him to be given as a gift to ambassadors. However, neither the Comptes des Bâtiments nor the Menus Plaisirs ever paid for it and its final destiny is unknown (M. Fenaille, Etat Général des Tapisseries de la Manufacture des Gobelins, Paris, 1903, vol. II, pp. 186 - 199).
If Fenaille's work is considered to a large degree complete, the provenance for this tapestry is either that of the third weaving where this tapestry was given by Louis XIV to his brother, or that of the unknown destiny of the fourth weaving. An interesting fact, however, is that when this tapestry was sold in 1927 it was accompanied by three further tapestries of this series, all of which were also among the subjects given to Philippe I de France.
Philippe I de France, duc d'Anjou until 1660 when he succeeded his uncle as duc d'Orléans, was the first of the last Bourbon dynasty of the dukes of Orléans. He was the younger brother of Louis XIV and married his cousin Henrietta, sister of King Charles II of England, in 1661 but soon avoided her and became involved in numerous homosexual relationships. When Henrietta died under suspicious circumstances in 1670, he married Elizabeth Charlotte, daughter of the Elector Palatine. Philippe was a very successful soldier but his commands were allegedly taken away by his jealous brother. His son Philippe II, duc d'Orléans, served as a Regent to King Louis XV from 1715 - 1723.
Charles Le Brun and the Gobelins workship
Charles Le Brun, the designer of this subject, became the arbiter and supervised most of the artistic works produced for the King during the 1660s to his death. He studied among others with Simon Vouet and went to Rome in 1642 where he met Nicolas Poussin and Pietro da Cortona from whom he learned. He made his reputation when he worked for Nicolas Fouquet, the minister of finance, at Vaux-le-Vicomte. His first work for Louis XIV was in 1661 when he painted a series of subjects from the life of Alexander the Great. In 1663 Jean-Baptiste Colbert appointed Le Brun director of the Gobelins.
This tapestry depicts a scene from The Life of Moses from the Old Testament. The Israelites were discontent with life in the desert and complained about God and Moses. God sent a plague of poisonous snakes as a punishment in which many Israelites died. When the people repented Moses asked God how he could relieve the people of the snakes. God told him to make an image of a snake and to put it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten they should look at the image and would be cured. So Moses made a serpent of brass and put it on a T-shaped pole. The Israelites had found a cure for the plague.
The three other panels that were originally sold in 1927 with this tapestry were sold again anonymously at Christie's New York, 26 April 1990, lots 3-5 (sold for $44,000; $77,000 and $55,000 respectively).