This is one of Domenichino’s most famous landscapes, and also one of his largest. It is closely based on Annibale Carracci’s Flight into Egypt, painted for the chapel of the Aldobrandini palace in Rome (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome), one of the most influential classical landscape paintings in the seventeenth century. It was probably painted around 1634–5, when Domenichino was living in Rome with the Aldobrandini.
Although there is no clear narrative, there is much going on in this painting. In the bottom left corner a fisherman sorts his catch, watched by a young woman with flowers and a guitar and a playful child. In the centre a shepherd directs his flock, while on the right two boatmen pole a boat along the river. Behind them is a group that looks like it could be the holy family on their flight into Egypt.
This is one of Domenichino’s most famous landscapes and, at over a metre tall and nearly two metres wide, also one of his largest. It was greatly admired by Constable, who saw the painting when it was in the collection of Lord Francis Egerton (later the Earl of Ellesmere). Constable praised ‘the grandeur of the composition and the urbanity of tone which pervades it’.
In early seventeenth-century Rome, landscape paintings became an increasingly popular alternative to fresco or tapestries as a way of covering a wall. These were not plein air depictions of real landscapes, however, but carefully structured and idealised settings for biblical or mythological stories, or dotted with the classical ruins which abounded in the city.
Unlike the artist’s Saint George killing the Dragon, this picture has no identifiable narrative, but is nevertheless full of incident. In the bottom left corner a fisherman sorts his catch, watched by a young woman with flowers and a guitar, and a playful child. An older woman peers at them round the door of a hut. There are boats on the river, travellers and a shepherd with his sheep, linked visually by the touches of red and white in their clothing. The whole forms a pleasant pastoral scene, with the landscape seen as offering a rural idyll where city dwellers could retreat from the pressures of urban living and enjoy simpler pleasures.
Some of these groups appear in other paintings by the artist. The oarsman in the back of the boat in the foreground was one of Domenichino’s favourite motifs and was derived from his master, Annibale Carracci. Indeed the whole composition is closely based on Annibale’s Flight into Egypt, the most famous of the lunettes painted by him and members of his workshop for the now-destroyed chapel of the Aldobrandini palace in Rome (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome). Annibale’s lunette was to be one of the most influential classical landscape paintings in the seventeenth century.
The two pictures are so similar that Domenichino’s is really a kind of respectful homage to his master. Very few of Domenichino’s landscapes can be dated with certainty, but this was probably painted around 1634–5, when Domenichino had come back to Rome to escape the pressure of his work in Naples and the hostility of his rivals there. During this period he lived with the Aldobrandini, and would have had the chance to see the lunettes in the chapel again. He knew the chapel paintings intimately: it has sometimes been suggested that he added the figures of the Virgin and Child in Annibale’s Flight. Whether or not this is true, he was inspired by the Flight throughout his career, from his Landscape with Flight into Egypt of about 1605–6 (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio), to his Landscape with seated Lovers of 1621–2 (Villa Ludovisi, Rome).
A drawing in black chalk (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle) is perhaps a preparatory study for this picture, although there are some differences. Other drawings at Windsor and the Louvre, Paris, show the reclining woman and the poleman.
This picture was left to the gallery by Sir Denis Mahon – the greatest collector/scholar of Italian Baroque painting in this country.
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