This panel of about 1650, one of the clearest examples of Cuyp's exceptional response to the Italianate landscapes of his contemporary Jan Both (ca. 1615/18–1652), shows the Holy Family on the left, traveling on a path in the light of a radiant sunset. The way to Egypt appears to have taken Mary and Joseph down the Rhine and along the coast of Liguria, although the view behind them seems an evocation of distant memories of those places rather than signs of recent experience. As is well known, Cuyp never went to Italy himself, but he borrowed the Claudian light, cisalpine motifs, and compositional ideas that Both employed in his prints and paintings. For example, Both's etching The Ferry
) is very similar in composition to this picture and includes analogous details, such as wayfarers with donkeys, herders with cows, distant towers, and a few light clouds colored by the descending sun. Some of Both's paintings of about 1645–50 are strikingly similar to this picture in tonality as well as design, and in their idyllic mood.
About two dozen landscapes by Cuyp are enlivened by religious figures, and at least three of them by the Holy Family on their way to Egypt. A large canvas in the care of the Instituut Collectie Nederland, Amsterdam, probably painted about 1645–48, shows the Holy Family with their donkey in a river valley, passing a bagpiper quite like the one in The Met's painting. The beautiful Flight into Egypt
in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art could be described as a larger and more elaborate version of the present work. And while the two paintings date from about the same time, one would imagine that the Los Angeles picture is the slightly later.
The placement of religious figures in extensive landscapes went back to the beginning of the genre in the Netherlands and continued through the seventeenth century, though by about 1650 the practice was more common in some regions (South Holland and Utrecht, for example) than in others. The story of the Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13–14) was especially popular, perhaps because many Netherlanders had fled persecution themselves, but more broadly because the subject allowed for spectacular scenery.
Cuyp's approach follows not only that of Both but also that of the Dutch Italianate landscapists in general. Cornelis van Poelenburch's Landscape with the Flight into Egypt
, of 1625 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht), was evidently the first of nine pictures he devoted to the subject. Bartholomeus Breenbergh depicts the Rest on the Flight into Egypt in a panel of 1634 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Not surprisingly, one of Both's landscape etchings of the 1640s centers on the Holy Family and two donkeys on a winding road. Paulus Potter's Flight into Egypt
, of 1644 (formerly Newhouse Galleries, New York), has been mentioned in connection with Cuyp's pictures, but one of the closest parallels, in date and in its sympathy with Both, is a small painting on copper of about 1645–50 by Herman van Swanevelt (ca. 1600–1655), who worked in Rome from the late 1620s until 1644, when he moved to Paris.
[2016; adapted from Liedtke 2007]