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This painting illustrates an episode described in the Old Testament (1 Samuel: 6-12), which is rarely depicted in art. The Ark – a wooden chest covered in gold containing the Ten Commandments – is pulled along on a cart drawn by cattle. It is being returned to the Israelites after the Philistines stole it in battle, and the Israelites are rejoicing. The Ark was a sacred object to Jews and Christians as it had been built by Moses according to God’s instructions. God punished the Philistines for their theft and forced them to send the Ark back to its rightful owners.
Across the lake, vivid white buildings represent the Israelites‘ city of Besh-shemesh. Although the landscape with snow-capped mountains is imaginary, it resembles the countryside around Rome, where Bourdon spent most of his life. The classical composition, which draws our attention to the figures’ dramatic gestures, varied architecture and the contrast between light and shade, shows the influence of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the most celebrated painter in seventeenth-century France.
Dramatic white light illuminates the snow-capped mountains and distant town, representing the Israelites‘ city of Besh-shemesh. The stormy sky on the left leaves most of the landscape in shade. Although the composition is imaginary, the landscape resembles the countryside around Rome, where Bourdon spent most of his life. Bourdon’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Metropolitan Museum, New York), the date of which is uncertain, uses a similar composition including group of figures in the foreground with a water mill, a lake and buildings behind them.
This painting is in Bourdon’s later style. The classical composition shows the influence of Nicolas Poussin, the most celebrated landscape painter in seventeenth-century France. Our attention is drawn to the dramatic gestures of the figures, varied architecture and contrast between light and shade. Bourdon admired Poussin’s work and delivered a lecture on his Christ healing the Blind Man of Jericho (Louvre, Paris) to members of the Académie Royale.
The inscription on the back of the painting reads ’C‘est La Toile du Tableaux/A. Mr. Thomas./1659’ (This is the canvas of the painting belonging to Mr Thomas./1659), which appeared when the painting was restored. We are not sure who the patron is or whether the inscription is genuine. Bourdon was in his native city of Montpelier during 1657 and 1658, and he may have secured the patronage of Antoine de Thomas or Monsieur Maistre N. de Thomas, both government officials who worked there.
During the late eighteenth century the painting was owned by the celebrated English painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who praised it in his Discourses (lectures delivered to Royal Academy students) in 1788, as ‘one in which the poetical style of landscape may be seen happily executed’. The painting was later given to Sir George Beaumont, who was instrumental in the founding of the National Gallery, and displayed at his home, Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire. It was so popular with this family that his wife made a copy in 1798, but its whereabouts is unknown.
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