Claude Lorraine, whose artistic inspiration derived from the Roman Campagna, can be considered one of the great figures of 17th-century classical landscape painting. He arrived in Rome at the age of twelve or thirteen. Soon after that he moved to Naples where he studied with the German landscape painter Goffredo Wals for around two years. Claude returned to Rome where he entered the studio of the landscape painter Agostino Tassi. The still incomplete information available to us on these years in Rome derives from two of his earliest biographers: Joachim von Sandrart and Filippo Baldinucci. After a brief stay in Lorraine the artist is again documented in Rome in 1627 where he remained until his death in 1682.
In the 1630s Claude began to achieve renown in Roman artistic circles and to receive commissions from major clients. In the second half of the decade these commissions included a series of eight canvases for the decoration of the Buen Retiro palace in Madrid for Philip IV of Spain. Other clients included leading ecclesiastical dignitaries including popes and cardinals, as well as Italian and French aristocrats. During this period in Italy, landscape painting began to acquire the status of an independent genre and became a type of work in demand from collectors as well as one appreciated on the art market.
In addition to the influence of his training with Wals and Tassi, various precedents have been suggested for the type of idealized landscape developed by Claude. Among the most important were the works by northern artists of Claude’s generation living in Rome such as Cornelis Poelenburgh and Bartholomeus Breenbergh. His earliest compositions also reveal a knowledge of Mannerist landscape in which specific elements as well as the colour are used to create the different spatial planes in which the narrative is set. In this respect the work of Paul Bril and Adam Elsheimer was important.
The present canvas, which is signed and dated, was commissioned by Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna, one of Claude’s most important patrons. It falls within the artist’s mature phase and was painted the same year that Claude suffered a serious illness and made his will. The biblical episode is located on the right in a setting inspired by the Roman Campagna which Claude regularly drew in the company of other artists, according to Sandrart. Using a high viewpoint and a vertical format that is relatively uncommon in his oeuvre, Claude introduces the viewer into the scene through the use of colour and light, for example, the two huge trees on either side of the canvas through whose leaves and branches light and atmosphere are filtered. The dark foreground planes, which include a boat with two figures and a peaceful herd of cows drinking in the river, are followed by an area that is brilliantly lit by the evening sun. The sun, which is hidden behind the screen of trees, emits rays that flood the background planes of the composition, leading the eye towards an idyllic landscape. Claude includes references to antiquity in the form of the ruins of a classical temple among the trees on the right, and in the tranquil mood with which the entire scene is imbued.
Claude depicted the episode of the Flight into Egypt on a number of occasions, possibly because it offered him the pretext to depict panoramic natural settings. Among the earliest known examples of this theme are two copper panels dating to the early 1630s in English collections.
The present composition is reproduced in the artist’s Liber Veritatis, now in the British Museum. This volume of drawings, begun by Claude in 1635, functioned as a record or catalogue of all his works and has been of great use in confirming which are his original compositions, as his works were so often copied and imitated.
The British Museum has a drawing of this composition with a few small variations, while prints after this painting include one by François Morel and Pierre Labruzzi, dating from the time when it belonged to Lucien Bonaparte. The canvas, which was in the collection of Sir David Williams in the UK, entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1966.