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Die Flucht Nach Egypten / The Flight into Egypt

CAT 133 french after claude Flight into Egypt mel chapin.jpg

CAT 134. W. French after Claude Lorrain. Die Flucht Nach Egypten / The Flight into Egypt. Dresdener Galerie. Engraved for Payne’s Royal Dresden Gallery, 1845. Melville Chapin Collection.

Like Cephalis and Procris reunited by Diana, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is a subject Claude Lorrain addressed multiple times throughout his career—in this case from the late 1630s to the mid-1670s. Appendix B of Melville’s copy of Dullea’s book on Claude Lorrain lists eight different Liber Veritatis drawings of this subject (LV 38, 60, 66, 88, 110, 154, 158, 187); Dullea locates the paintings relating to the last five of these in Dresden, Leningrad, and three private collections in England. Melville’s print of the The Flight into Egypt from Payne’s Royal Dresden Gallery was engraved by William French in 1845. Roethlisberger in 1961 identifies the Dresden painting as Pastoral Landscape with the Flight into Egypt and dates it to 1647 (Paintings, LV 110). This was two years after Claude had painted the Landscape with Cephalus and Procris Reunited by Diana that Melville would have seen at the National Gallery in London (CAT 129, fig. 1) and the Pastoral Landscape that Melville acquired in Feradiny’s engraving of the Le Berger Galant (CAT 132).

The expansive landscape in the Dresden painting combines Claude’s pastoral and religious subjects from the 1640s. The pastoral element is the most prominent visually. In the foreground we see a shepherd piping to a shepherdess with cattle nearby while a young woman is bending down to fill a jug from a waterspout. The Holy Family for whose Flight into Egypt the painting is named are much smaller figures who are turning up the path through the grove to the left. The wings of the angel leading them are not as clearly defined as in most of Claude’s other treatments of this subject, but you can see the Christ child reaching out toward Joseph as he and mother Mary are carried up the path. The two figures in the middle distance to the right of the grove of trees are nearly as prominent as the Holy Family as they walk in the sun toward the most prominent feature on the right side of the print. The water pouring from the spacious landscape in the distance through the converging rapids into the surging current pull our eyes from pastoral figures in the foreground into the liquid flow on the right as if to baptize the entire scene.

Is the piping shepherd in Melville’s print looking at his shepherdess or at the water flowing behind her? This print reminds me of Ishmael’s declaration in the opening chapter of Moby-Dick that “meditation and water are wedded together.” It also supports Ishmael’s further suggestion that for the artist who “desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape . . . all were in vain, unless the shepherd’s eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him”” (NN MD 5-6). Dullea sees the Dresden version of The Flight into Egypt as one of those Claudean landscapes in which “the incident by which the work is known might be omitted without any appreciable loss” (71). But there is a spiritual element to the “magic steam” in this painting that is perhaps deepened by Claude’s titular as well as pictorial allusion to Biblical tradition surrounding the angel who led the Holy Family into Egypt to save their Son from King Herod and the ensuing Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:13-23).

Claude’s seemingly anachronistic juxtaposition of pastoral and religious elements in some of his “landscape and” paintings might have interested Melville as the author of Clarel, the epic narrative poem of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land which itself juxtaposes the religious and pastoral traditions of not only Rome and Jerusalem, Virgil and Tasso, but even the Middle East and the South Seas. The Dresden version of Claude’s Flight into Egypt depicts its own striking juxtaposition. The pastoral scene in the foreground is one of Claude’s most vivid presentations of the Golden Age of Arcadia envisioned by Virgil in the Eclogues he is thought to have written about forty years before the birth of Christ, the event that prompted the flight into Egypt by the family the angel is leading up through the woods behind the pastoral figures on the left. Seen in this light, Claude’s painting captures that moment in time when the classical, pastoral vision epitomized by Virgil was to be challenged by the birth of the Christian era that eventually consolidated into the Roman Catholic church that consigned Virgil, along with all unbaptized infants, to the eternal purgatorial condition memorably illustrated by John Flaxman in the prints Melville’s acquired from the French edition of Dante’s Purgatorio published in Paris in 1833 (CAT 80-102). Melville’s copy of French’s engraving of The Flight into Egypt, no less than Claude’s original painting in the Royal Dresden Gallery (fig. 1), would seem to suggest that the current of history, like that of the river running down to the right, would follow its own kind of gravity.

CAT 133 fig 1 Claude_Lorrain_-_Landscape_with_Rest_in_Flight_to wikimedia.jpg

Figure 1. Claude Lorrain. Pastoral Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, oil on canvas, 1647. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany.

Melville had easy access to an English-language translation of Virgil’s Eclogues in the 37-volume edition of Harper’s Classical Library that he acquired in 1849 (Sealts no. 147). He had easy access to the English language text that accompanied French’s print in the edition of Payne’s Royal Dresden Gallery that was published in New York in 1867. After a rather detailed account of how the nearly illiterate boy from Lorraine rose to the status of an artist who painted exclusively for Popes and Princes, this commentary emphasized the atmospheric effects for which Claude’s Italian landscapes were still so highly valued. “Over the distance, in which a city and Roman aqueduct are visible, floats a mist, which the rays of the Sun transform to a veil of gold. A broad stream flows through the valley, and forms a number of small cascades over the rock foreground; on the left bank of the stream, are seen a few ruins, and rustic dwellings; and on the right, a beautiful meadow agreeably broken by trees and bushes, expands itself before us; near which, under the shadow of a group of Pines, the holy family are seen guided by an angel on the flight, from which the composition derives its name” (Payne, 1:124).

Some elements of Claude’s design, including the pastoral figures in the foreground, stand out much more clearly in the painting still at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden than in Melville’s engraving. Other elements, such as the configuration of the Holy Family and the flow of water through the rapids, are easier to see in the print. The commentary in the 1867 New York edition of Payne’s Royal Dresden Gallery concludes its visual survey of this painting by declaring that “instead of gazing on a flat surface, the eye seems to range over immeasurable space, till it is again drawn to contemplate the warm and genial foreground. In painting the effects of atmosphere and light; in investing the objects of earth with the hues of heaven, Claude is confessedly, the first and greatest painter, of all times and countries” (Payne, 1:123-4).