This picture has been in the possession of the same family since the 1840s, and from 1824 has been known only in engraved form (see fig. 1). Since it appearance in 2001, it has received unanimous acceptance by the major Poussin scholars as an early work by the master.
The younger brother of Napoleon, Lucien Bonaparte formed one of the great collections of the 19th Century during his career as a statesman and patron. He began to collect paintings whilst ministre de l'intérieur et des arts (24 December 1799-2 November 1800), and after the death of his first wife, Christine Boyer, in May 1800, he consoled himself by buying paintings and commissioning works from contemporary artists such as Greuze, François-Xavier Fabre, Jacques Sablet, and Guérin. That year he travelled on an embassy to Madrid in the company of the painters Jacques Sablet and Guillon Lethière, who advised him on him on a series of purchases whilst in Spain. Lucien came back with at least 100 paintings (some authors have counted 300), some of which he had been offered by King Charles IV, others that he had bought such as the Madonna del Latte by Correggio (location unknown) and The Sleep of the Infant Christ by Raphael (location unknown). It is also probably during his stay in Madrid that he acquired the Woman with a Fan by Velásquez (London, Wallace Collection), as well as two paintings by Ribera and four by Murillo. In 1804, Lucien Bonaparte went in exile to Rome after a dispute with his brother who was refusing to accept his remarriage with Alexandrine de Bleschamp. The collection was sent to Rome and listed (partially) on 13 June 1804 upon its arrival to comply with the Italian regulations of the time. The present painting is mentioned in that list which would indicate that it was sent from Paris. No record is to be found of Lucien's purchase of a painting by Poussin in Paris in the two previous years and it is thus possible that this work was one he bought in Spain.
That this was so is supported by the possibility that this picture was formerly in the collection of Don Gaspar Méndez de Haro y Guzmán, 7th Marqués del Carpio y Eliche (1629-1687). Del Carpio, who was Viceroy of Naples in 1682-7, owned an exceptional collection of pictures and other works of art. Much of this was inherited from his father, the 6th Marqués del Carpio, nephew of the Conde-Duque de Olivares, but the 7th Marqués acquired such masterpieces as Velazquez's Rokeby Venus (National Gallery, London) and Raphael's Alba Madonna (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.). The 1682 inventory of del Carpio's collection recorded as no. 905, 'Un quadro che rappresenta una Madonna con il Bambino, un Angelo, e San Gioseppe, di mano di Nicoló Pusino di maniera di Titiano, di palmi 2 1/2 e 2. in circa stimato in 100 ('Inventory of Don Gaspar de Guzmàn, VII Marqués del Carpio, on the occasion of his leaving Rome, where he had been Ambassador', Madrid, Palacio de Liria, Archivio Casa de Alba). There are discrepancies with the present painting: 2½ x 2 palmi corresponds to 55 x 44 cm. (in the inventory the larger measurement is normally written first, irrespective of format), and the description of the Infant Baptist as an Angel is unusual, given the level of erudition generally displayed in the inventory's descriptions. However the assertion of the inventory's authors (del Carpio's notary, Jaime Antonio Redoutey, and the artist Giuseppe Pinacci) that the picture was painted by Poussin in the style of Titian lends weight to the possibility of it being the same picture.
In Italy, Lucien Bonaparte continued to buy from Italian dealers, including a second work by Poussin, from the Giustiniani collection: the Massacre of the Innocents, (Chantilly, Musée Condé). In 1808 the Abbé Guattani published an inventory of his collections in the Palais Nunez and described the Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist as being in room 6, the largest of the thirteen rooms, which included nineteen pictures and a statue by Michelangelo. Each work was numbered by Bonaparte himself. It is possible that the number '52' (the correct inventory number) could have been incorrectly copied as the '92' that is presently visible on the relining canvas. Facing financial difficulties, Bonaparte started thinking of selling his collection en bloc and at the same time decided once again to leave in exile in 1810. Leaving his collections behind in storage and taking with him the engraved plates of his paintings, he set off with his family for the United States but was captured by English troops in waters off Sardinia and taken to England where he remained for four years. While there, he published Choix de gravures à l'eau-forte, d'après les peintures originales et les marbres de la galerie de Lucien Bonaparte. In the following years he organised two sales through his English contacts, from Rome, where he had returned in 1814. The first took place at the New Gallery, 6 February 1815 and following days. A second sale was organised by Mr Stanley, on 14 May 1816. In 1822, Lucien Bonaparte published the engravings of the unsold lots which were to be auctioned in Paris in two sales in 1816 and in 1840, just after Lucien's death.
After the sale in Paris in 1816, the present picture was acquired by Guillaume Bertrand Scipion de Saint-Germain, a doctor born in Puy en Velay in 1810 who died in Paris in 1810. The painting has remained in the collection of his family ever since. Scipion de Saint-Germain was the médecin particulier of Thiers and published several essays such as Des manifestations de la vie et de l'intelligence à l'aide de l'organisation (1847), De la diversité originelle des races humaines et des conséquences qui en résultent (1847); Descartes considéré comme physiologiste et médecin (1869) and a translation of Protagoa by Leibnitz. According to the family tradition, Scipion de Saint-Germain was advised in his collecting by Aimé Charles His de la Salle (1795-1878), the well-known drawings and paintings collector who donated most of his collection to French museums.
Poussin arrived in Rome in the winter of 1623-4, after a brief stay in Venice. The present work dates from his early years in Rome, 1626-1627. It can be compared with others from that period such as the Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist (Budapest Museum) where a drape hung between two trees separates the group of the Virgin and children from that of Joseph absorbed in reading. The same idea is also to be found in his mythological paintings of the period such as the Cephalus and Aurora (private collection) where the dark cloth is used to separate a couple of lovers from the River God and his Acis and Galatea (National Gallery, Dublin), both of which are generally dated circa 1627. These early works, and in particular their landscapes, owe a clear debt to Titian.