Francesco Solimena (1657 Canale di Serino - 1747 Barra)
Oil on canvas ; 31.1 x 37.8 cm
New York, Julius Weitzner Collection, 1950 ; Saint Lawrence, University of Kansas Museum of Art ; New York, Sotheby's, 6th June 1985 (attributed to Giovanni Battista Rossi) ; New York, Paul Ganz Collection ; New York, Everett Fahy collection ; New York, Christie's, 26th October 2016.
Pierre Rosenberg, "Quelques tableaux inédits du XVIIème siècle français", in Art de France : Revue annuelle de l'art ancien et moderne, vol. IV, Paris, 1964, p. 299 (attributed to Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari) ; Burton Fredericksen, Federico Zeri, Census of Pre-nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 52 (attributed to Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari) ; Anthony M. Clark, Studies in Roman Eighteenth-Century Painting, Washington D.C., Decatur House Press, 1981, p. 8 (Sebastiano Conca) ; Nicola Spinosa, Pittura Napoletana del Settecento, Naples, Electa, 1988, no. 13 ; Gabriele Finaldi et al., Discovering the Italian Baroque : the Denis Mahon Collection, London, National Gallery Publications, 1997, no. 76 ; Simona Carotenuto, Francesco Solimena : dall'attività giovanile agli anni della maturità (1674-1710), Rome, Edizioni Nuova cultura, 2015, no. A27 (reproduced).
Solimena is, after Giordano, the main Baroque painter in Naples. But in that painting, in his early years, he is still under the influence of Roman classicism, tinged with anxiety (in the vesperal landscape) and fantasy (in the charming detail of the sunflower that reproduces as if in counterpart the hair of the cherub) proper to the Baroque.
The apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew relates that on the way to Egypt, to escape the massacre of the children of Judea ordered by Herod, the Holy Family stopped under a palm tree (here in the background) which, on the injunction of the divine Child, bends its branches to offer its fruits, and makes a spring gush out from its roots. The scene is enhanced by the presence not only of the donkey, but also of an ox, which it is hard to believe that it followed the flight from Bethlehem, of a rooster which perhaps announces the episode of the betrayal of Saint Peter, the moment when Christ, far from fleeing, will instead face his destiny, and finally of a sphinx, a metonym for Egypt.
There is one large version of this composition (97 x 139 cm, location unknown) and two smaller ones : one, on copper, bequeathed by the great art historian Denis Mahon to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge ; and our version, on canvas, from the collection of Everett Fahy, who was chief curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum and director of the Frick Collection. In the catalogue of the Denis Mahon collection, Gabriele Finaldi, the current director of the National Gallery in London, considered the two works "of similar quality" and recalled the existence of an engraving of 1724, during the artist's lifetime, based on our painting (the major difference with the copperplate version is the absence of a tray of fruit in the hands of the blond cherub).
If this composition seduced two great specialists of Italian painting, it is, perhaps, because it perfectly illustrates not only the confluence of classicism and baroque, but also the magical moment, at the end of the 17th century (Nicola Spinosa, the specialist of the artist, dates it to around 1680), when blossomed the feeling of intimacy and nature, which would become so important in the following century.