The Flight into Egypt.
Oil on Canvas, 95 x 127.5 cm, possibly 1629-30.
WORCESTER, (Massachusetts), Art Museum.
First recorded in 1825, in the collection of the Reverend Heneage Finch, probably in England; after Heneage’s death in 1865, passed by descent to Col. J. C. Wynne- Finch; sold at Sotheby’s, London 4/7/1956, lot. 142; bt. Armitage; anon. sale, Sotheby, London, 20/11/1957, lot. 111, bt. by the Vermeer scholar Lawrence Gowing; subsequently acq by the museum- date unknown, but presumably after the owner’s death in 1991.
Copy, unknown artist. Private Collection, Paris, pen
in brown on yellow washed paper, 145 x 170 mm. This drawing was considered by
Friedlaender and Blunt to be a copy of the preparatory drawing for the
Worcester Flight. It was subsequently reproduced in Blunt’s monograph,
and then exhibited as a copy by Oberhuber at Fort Worth in 1988 (D 162). In
1966, Blunt stated that the style was “in the manner that [Poussin] used in
about the years 1626-28”. In actual fact the crudity of this drawing (commas
for eyes, bold schematic outlines for the contours of the figures) corresponds
more to the earlier Marino drawings when Poussin was finding his feet as a
draughtsman back in 1625-6. Stephen Conrad tells me that Prat and Rosenberg in their 1994 CR of the drawings ( R 976) relate "the drawing to a painting accepted by Blunt but justly rejected by Thuillier and Rosenberg,
as its style forbids its retention in the corpus." Needless to say I don't agree with this rejection., nor does SC. See Stephen's full comments below on this issue with particular reference to Mahon's thought on the baroque in Poussin..
Copy, Michel Corneille II (1642-1708), Paris, Museé du Louvre, brown ink, brown wash, traces of chalk, 145 x 181 m.
Oberhuber reported that Rosenberg knew of this drawing, which by the miracle of technology you can visit virtually here. Given the closeness of this drawing to the more well-known one, it’s to be wondered if Corneille was also copying a compositional drawing. If this is true, then it may offer clues about Poussin’s original intentions. In both drawings, the buildings and edifices are eliminated, with only large trees behind the main group. The Holy Family moves through countryside instead of leaving what looks like the outskirts of a hamlet in the painting. Was this Poussin’s first thought for the painting, and the walls were added in the final version, possibly inspired by the Nancy Christ Entering Jerusalem which as Blunt noted has similar buildings? The most significant omission in both of these drawings is the two angels hovering above the fleeing family. It is probably the case that if the original drawing surfaced, we would find little difference between it and these two sheets, which suggests that the picture was initially conceived without the iconographical complexity of the final picture. It seems to be the case that we’re dealing with copies after Poussin’s original drawings for the Worcester canvas. It would be interesting to see what Rosenberg and Prat have to say about the Corneille copy, especially as Rosenberg believed that the Flight was a pastiche.
Copy, attributed to Sébastien Bourdon, in Sotheby sale of 21 March 1988. Thanks again to SC. for this information.
Description and Iconography.
Christ and his parents, Mary and Joseph, flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod. In this painting, no less than four angels are shown: one large winged one who walks before the donkey bearing Mary and Christ; two conversing with each other that fly above the first; and a putto with small wings who hovers around the Madonna’s head. The first who spurs the Holy Family away from the danger that Joseph seems to be gazing back at may be the angel who warned Joseph of the wrath of Herod, whilst the other airborne angels partly shrouded in cloud could represent the other two dreams that Joseph received: one to announce Mary’s virginity; the other to proclaim the Holy Family’s return from Egypt, although that interpretation wouldn’t have an exact fit here. I think that we can be more confident about the small putto who flies behind the head of the Virgin Mary; this figure surely symbolises the Holy Innocents from whose slaughter Joseph and his family are fleeing. As the infants were the very first martyrs to die for Christ, and Mary represented Ecclesia, the Church, it is fitting that this putto should accompany the Virgin, and give the impression that it is about to crown her as Ecclesia, for whom it has died. Note also that the infant wears a crown of flowers and ancient writers like Prudentius compared their massacre to petals in a storm.
It may also be significant that the Worcester Flight into Egypt shows ambivalence on the compositional level: Joseph, Mary and the leading angel glance back, a check to their rightward advance. By introducing this collective backward glance, both a compositional and psychological counter-movement, the spectator is immediately reminded of the threat from which the Holy Family are fleeing. Indeed, it would not be difficult to imagine a painting of the massacre of the innocents hanging on the left next to this version of the Worcester Flight into Egypt. Yet, perhaps to think in terms of pendants for the massacre and the flight in the seventeenth-century is misleading because study of these two subjects in this period suggests that there was an increasing tendency for the two themes to overlap, with the result that each theme became embedded within the other, thus eradicating the need to cross-reference between the two subjects on separate canvases.
Technical Notes and Connoisseurship Issues.
(a) Stylistic Analysis.
This picture was examined by PCP a long time ago, in 2007, in the Worcester museum. My recollection is that the picture did seem to be summarily painted, i.e. painted sketchily, and that it may be unfinished. The notion of summary execution of this painting first appeared in Badt in 1969, who remarked on the Flight’s unfinished quality. Mining the same strand, Konrad Oberhuber in his Fort Worth exhibition of 1988, advanced the view that Poussin had deliberately painted the picture in this hurried way to emphasise the speed of the Holy Family fleeing across the picture.
“It was painted at the time of the Vièrge au pilier in a manner so free and sketchy that it is generally regarded as unfinished. Yet we wonder wether Poussin had a special purpose in mind here, that of describing speed. The composition is built up from the horizon line of the forward-moving donkey and the oblique parallels formed by the bending bodies of angel, Virgin, and St Joseph striding and riding at their quickest. Draperies float along and support their movement, and their faces are turned back in concern, letting us experience the danger from which they escape and their need for haste. As they lightly pass by in bright and flashing colours, receding into space ever so slightly, we know that in spite of the humble setting the event is a matter of the highest importance.”
This is an ingenious suggestion, but there is no way of proving Oberhuber’s hypothesis, Are we dealing here with a pastiche, a thought that Rosenberg entertained in 1982, or was this picture uncharacteristically rushed by a painter who is noted for his meticulous, plodding style? There are some worrying aspects; the doll-like, un-modelled face of the Madonna. Compare it with the fully realized classical profile of the Virgin in the St Catherine, examined in the previous entry, and very close stylistically to the Worcester canvas. During my inspection of the picture in 2007 another scholar who joined me expressed doubts about the attribution, though mercifully he refrained from assigning it to Mellin, the pis aller of Poussin connoisseurship, as noted in last post.
Perhaps the problem of the sketchy style can be explained in terms of the paragone, a hangover from the renaissance where the merits of painting were compared with sculpture. My train of thought owes much to the late Sir Denis Mahon who inspected the picture when it was shown in Blunt’s 1960 exhibition in the Louvre.
“In the next stage (which would be during 1627) we find Poussin veering more definitely towards a baroque point of view in which Colore predominates over Disegno. But he has not yet grasped the full possibilities of baroque composition. Professor Gowing’s Flight into Egypt (E 10) is organised more or less in one plane like a bas relief, but in every other respect is committed to Colore.”
I tend to agree with Mahon about the dialogue between colour and the more sculptural aspects of this picture, although his dating seems three or four years too early for me- see below. With its strict articulation of figures, and the confinement of the figures to one plane, Poussin does successfully produce painted relief, something he did in a work from the same period- the Return from the Flight into Egypt (Cleveland), although this work inclines more towards the baroque with its swirling clouds of angels and dramatic cross in the sky. Yet colour is pronounced in the Worcester picture: blue and vermilion for the Madonna; scintillating golden yellow for the garment of the leading angel. Perhaps the “hurried” look of the picture owes something to a trade-off between sculptural painting and the colore that Poussin learnt from the Venetians, either from their paintings in Rome, or painters in that city- like Lanfranco- who favoured this open brush style.
The earliest date suggested for this painting was 1627, by Blunt and Mahon. In the case of Blunt, this dating partly rested on the style of the “compositional drawing” known from copies whose artistic character was consistent with Poussin’s early period, as he noted in his catalogue of drawings prepared with Friedlaender. However, the crudities of the drawing- assuming that the two drawings faithfully render them, which seems likely as they are both very similar, are not present in the final painting. Possibly the drawing problem could be resolved if we agreed that Poussin left the original composition alone and returned to it two or three years later when he came to work on the Worcester painting. There is also the possibility that another preparatory sheet did exist for the painting with a more sophisticated manner of drawing than the one known through copies.
Mahon approached the problem of dating through traditional connoisseurship, deducing date on the basis of a comparative analysis between the Worcester painting and others, though he concurred with Blunt’s date of 1627. As noted by Blunt in 1960, the wall in the Worcester canvas resembles the buildings found in the Christ Entering Jerusalem at Nancy, which as noted above has the same colour scheme. We encounter a problem here though; the Nancy painting is in a very bad condition which has led to doubts about the attribution, with Mellin raising his head yet again. Christopher Wright dismissed Mellin’s involvement and proposed a solution: Poussin abandoned the picture half-completed. Given that the Worcester picture seems incomplete too; could there have been some kind of crisis in Poussin’s workshop at the time these pictures were painted? As for the Nancy de-attribution, it’s worth pointing out that the motif of the putti holding the cross in the sky appears again in uncontested works like the Dulwich Flight into Egypt and the Cleveland Return of the Flight into Egypt. Blunt (1960) also observed that Saint Joseph in the Massachusetts picture was painted after the same model for a figure in the Louvre Virgin of the Pillar. I would also add that the turn of the head of the acolyte with his hands clasped together in the Virgin picture echoes the leading angel in the Flight; they both have the same diagonal tilt of the head upwards. Given such close figurative correspondences, I think it is reasonable to move the Worcester painting up to at least 1629, the earliest date for the Louvre Virgin of the Pillar. Supporting this date, it should also be noted that the Madonna in the Flight is very similar to the one in the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh c.1629) it can therefore be assumed that the Worcester picture is almost contemporary with the both the Edinburgh St Catherine and the Louvre Virgin of the Pillar. Finally, though Wright wanted to move the Flight into the early 1630s, I think a date close to the end of the decade is the better option.
Despite the summary treatment of this picture, and taking into account the existence of copies which show a underdeveloped treatment of the subject, PCP proposes that we are dealing here with a genuine picture painted by Poussin about 1629-30. There are too many similarities between motifs in this picture and other works done at this time. I have never really understood claims for taking it away from Poussin; or indeed the Nancy picture, which it so closely resembles in colour and tone. Doubters should also acknowledge that the treatment of the Flight is thorougly original- and only a painter of Poussin's invention could have even begun to conceive such a picture that marries poised classical relief with painterly exuberance.
Blunt, 1966 + (1627)
Wild, 1966 - (Charles Mellin).
Badt, 1969 + (summary style)
Blunt, 1974 +
Thuillier, 1974 - (though not by Mellin).
Wild, 1980 – (Charles Mellin).
Rosenberg, 1982, - (a pastiche?)
Wright, 1984, + (early 1630s).
PCP, 2007 + (1629-30, after viewing the picture; noted the summary style).
PCP, 2012 +, (1629-30).
Anthony Blunt, Exposition Nicolas Poussin, (Museé du Louvre), 1960, no. 10.
Anthony Blunt, The Paintings of Nicolas Poussin: A Critical Catalogue, (London,1966), no. 60.
Walter Friedlaender and Anthony Blunt, The Drawings of Nicolas Poussin: Catalogue Raisonne, (5 vols), (London, 1937-75), Paris drawing, listed as copy after a compositional drawing, V, A169.
Konrad Oberhuber, Poussin: The Early Years in Rome, (Fort Worth, 1988), no. 73; no. D163 (Paris drawing, here listed as copy).
L.A. Prat and Pierre Rosenberg, Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665,Catalogue raisonné des dessins, , 2 vols, Milan, [1994), R 976.
Christopher Wright, Poussin Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, (London, 1984), no. 69.
Kurt Badt, Die Kunst des Nicolas Poussin, (Cologne, 1969), 88..
Anthony Blunt, Nicolas Poussin, (Washington, 1967, rep, London, 1995), 75.
Denis Mahon, “Poussin’s Early Development: An Alternative Hypothesis,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 102, No. 688, 288-327.
David Packwood, unpublished PhD dissertation, Theological and Philosophical Themes in Poussin’s Art, (University of Birmingham, 2005, 59-61.