This early work by Gregorio de' Ferrari corresponds to the large-scale altarpiece of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt commissioned by Cristoforo Battista Centurione in 1674-5 for the church of San Giovanni Battista dei Padri Teatini, Sampierdarena (now in the Sacristy of San Siro, Genoa, along with its pendant The Ecstacy of Saint Francis; see M. Newcome Schleier, op. cit., pp. 27-30, nos. 10 and 13). The present work is a reduced, less vertical version, with minor differences, of the Centurione picture. In her catalogue raisonné of the artist, Mary Newcome Schleier suggests that this smaller autograph version may have been executed for a private collector. The fact that there are a number of small differences compared with the large altarpiece (notably to the bundle in the left corner, whose stripes follow the folds rather than running perpendicular to them; to the bench on which the Virgin sits; the more abbreviated foliage of the palm tree; and fewer angels above), as well as a number of clear pentimenti, coupled with the liveliness of execution and a certain freedom in the handling, could also lead to an alternative possibility: that this is in fact a modello for the finished altarpiece.
The painting also reveals the extent to which the young Gregorio had assimilated the example of Correggio, a painter whose work he had studied at first hand while in Parma from 1669. Carlo Giuseppe Ratti, in his Vita of Gregorio de' Ferrari comments that he was employed by Ranuccio Farnese to paint a number of copies after works by Correggio in the Farnese collection, including the Madonna della Scodella (Rest on the Return from Egypt), Galleria Nazionale, Parma (reproduced in colour in D. Ekserdjian, Correggio, New Haven and London, 1997, p. 219, fig. 222). Gregorio's copy, now lost, was formerly in the collection of the artist Anton Raphael Mengs. The present work shows a clear debt to Correggio's composition, particularly in the arrangement of the figures, and the prominence given to Saint Joseph. Following Correggio's innovative iconography, Gregorio places Joseph in the forefront of the picture, standing in a dynamic contrapposto pose as he pulls the palm tree down with his left hand in order to shelter the Virgin and Child.