The composition should be dated to circa 1626 on the basis of comparison with the painting recorded by Klaus Ertz in his catalogue raisonné of the works of Jan Brueghel II as his no. 141 (Jan Brueghel der Jüngere, Freren, 1984, pp. 310-1, no. 141, illustrated, and p. 132, pl. 26), formerly with Galerie Frye & Sohn, Münster, signed and dated 'H. V. BALEN 1626'.
Such a dating places this picture within a group of works of similar iconography produced by Brueghel in collaboration with Van Balen shortly after the former's return from Italy, including that sold in these Rooms, 11 July 2001, lot 8 (£388,750). Brueghel's return was occasioned by the unexpected death in 1625 of his father, Jan I, in a cholera epidemic. Back in Antwerp, the younger Brueghel took over his father's studio, completing several of the latter's unfinished works, and maintaining the practices and partnerships established by him, including that with Van Balen, who had been an executor of Jan I's estate. It is, consequently, at times hard to distinguish between the work of father and son at this period, however the dominant position of the staffage in this picture, combined with Van Balen's signature in the Frye painting, perhaps indicate the greater influence of the older artist in the aftermath of Jan I's death.
The iconography is unusual within the Brueghel-Van Balen oeuvres in its inclusion of Joseph in the main group of figures, rather than in the distant background. This presumably was occasioned by Van Balen's reliance here on the Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew, which relates that 'while they were walking ... Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm ... And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm ... Then the child Jeus ... said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed'.
The Pseudo-Matthew (dating from the mid-sixth century, and supposedly written by Saint Matthew the Evangelist, it is an abridged adaptation of the Protoevangelium of Saint James - itself a Greek apocryphal of the second century) was the primary source for the expanded accounts of the Flight into Egypt. It also tells that a spring broke forth at the foot of the tree, a detail which has been interpreted by Brueghel as a lion's-head fountain, to which an angel holds a bowl.