Nicolas Poussin, La Fuite en Égypte, 1657
Other pictures
Oil on canvas
H. 97; W. 133 cm
Loaned by the State in 2008
Inv. R.F. 2008-1
Nicolas Poussin
[[Les Andelys, 1594 - Rome, 1665]
The Flight into Egypt

Audio commentary on the work in English

In this painting, Nicolas Poussin represents a well-known passage of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Since King Herod had learned from the Wise Men of the birth in Bethlehem of the “King of the Jews,” he ordered that all children under two years of age in the village should be put to death. Joseph was warned in a dream by an angel that he should flee with the baby Jesus and his mother to escape the massacre.

The artist has arranged his composition around a diagonal that divides the canvas into a sacred, celestial area on the left and a profane, earthly area on the right. In the center, an angel guides the Holy Family through a landscape taken from the Roman countryside. Each of the main figures looks in a particular direction or carries on a discussion. Joseph questions the angel, Mary looks back to symbolize nostalgia for the past, the donkey moves toward the shadow of an uncertain future and Jesus, who is at the center of the composition, gazes at the spectator. The diagonals converge on the protective gesture of the Virgin to emphasize that the flight into Egypt was one of the Seven Sorrows of the Holy Mother, which announced the Passion of Christ.

A permanent resident of Rome from 1642 on, Poussin searched for inspiration in Roman ruins and the works of the Renaissance, as well as in the contemporary classical models of Annibal Carrache. Thus, the figure of the Virgin looking back is undoubtedly derived from a Roman bas-relief. The angel’s attitude and the pose of the traveler resting by the side of the road were inspired by the frescoes and engravings of Rafael; the portico in the background and the curved tree come from a Roman mosaic.

Jacques Sérisier, a Lyon silk manufacturer living in Paris, ordered the work from the artist in 1657. Poussin was sixty-three years old at the time and was one of the great figures of European painting, as well as the founder of French classicism. This is one of the artist-philosopher’s most enigmatic paintings. It reflects the artist’s universal and enduring meditation on the theme of exile.