Guido Reni was among the most celebrated and influential painters of seventeenth-century Italy. He was greatly admired during his lifetime for his graceful, classical style characterised by refined colours, delicate and varied flesh tones, soft modelling, and a gentle emotional sensibility inspired by Raphael. Seventeenth-century accounts of his life and work are filled with praise, describing his paintings as 'graceful', 'divine', and 'angelic'. Gian Lorenzo Bernini himself once remarked to a French nobleman that an Annunciation painted by Reni for the French Queen, Anne of Austria, was 'alone worth half of Paris'.
Born in Bologna, Reni trained there alongside Francesco Albani and Domenichino in the workshop of the Flemish painter Denys Calvaert. In about 1595, he entered the Carracci academy, where he absorbed the commitment to naturalistic observation that was the basis of the so-called 'Carracci reform'. In 1601, Reni was called to Rome at the behest of Cardinal Emilio Sfondrato (1561-1618), a nephew of Pope Gregory XIV, as well as a serious scholar and distinguished art patron. Cardinal Sfondrato became one of the most important patrons of Reni's early work; his support was so significant, in fact, that the artist's first years in Rome have become known as his 'sfondrato period'. The Cardinal welcomed Reni into a sophisticated artistic milieu through which he was first introduced to the work of the Cavaliere d'Arpino, whose polished, elegant style would become a major influence on the young artist.
In pristine condition, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt exemplifies the extraordinary quality and refinement of Reni's small-scale paintings on copper. His teacher Calvaert first introduced this support to artists in Bologna, and Reni soon became one of the most celebrated practitioners in seicento Italy of oil painting on copper, which he used most frequently in his early years. The smooth reflective plates allowed Reni to create exquisitely detailed, luminous images, eloquently described by his biographer Malvasia as 'rametti da letto graziosissimi' ('exquisite small paintings on copper for the bedroom'). They were particularly suited to the graceful female figures and intimate, devotional images of the Madonna for which Reni was most renowned, and of which this touching work is a jewel-like example.
As recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:13-23), Joseph learns from the Magi bearing gifts for the Christ-child that King Herod, fearing he will be overthrown, has ordered the execution of all infants in the region. In order to avoid this fate, the Holy Family set out for sanctuary in Egypt. The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, the subject of the present composition, has no biblical source, but was well-known from apocryphal narratives of the infancy of Christ dating from the eighth and ninth centuries. According to these stories, the Holy Family is overtaken by fatigue and hunger on their journey, and settles for the night under a fruiting date palm. There, it is said, the infant Christ performed an early miracle, causing a branch of the palm to bend down so that the nourishing fruit could be reached.
Here, no palms are visible, the fruit already gathered in a silver tazza and proffered generously by an angel, whose long, sinuous form echoes that of the Christ-child, who reaches eagerly for a taste. The plate overflows with apples and figs, which both appear in contemporary representations of the Madonna and Child as symbols of the Tree of Knowledge and thus of Christ's future sacrifice and redemption of Original Sin. The Madonna's downcast eyes and the angel's solemn expression reinforce this meaning. The appearance of the young Saint John the Baptist on the right may suggest a conflation of two early apocryphal stories, as the meeting of the young Christ and his future apostle famously took place in the wilderness during the Holy Family's return from their sojourn in Egypt.
The figures' elongated proportions and elegant postures, which recall Calvaert's example, are characteristic of Reni's sfondrato period and typify his earliest works painted in Rome. Stephen Pepper originally proposed a date of circa 1607-1608 for the picture, but later accepted the dating of circa 1602-1603 first advanced by Sir Denis Mahon. Supporting this earlier date, scholars have pointed to a clarity and brilliance of colour that reveal the influence of the Cavaliere d'Arpino, whose work had an especially strong effect on Reni during his first years in Rome. Indeed, the Cavaliere's own Rest on the Flight into Egypt of circa 1590-1600 (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), probably made for the Barberini family (for whom Reni also worked), may have inspired the motif of the sumptuous pillow on which Joseph reclines, rapt in familial adoration.
Along with that of the Cavaliere, Reni was exposed to myriad new influences upon his arrival in Rome. Caravaggio's Rest on the Flight into Egypt of circa 1597 (Rome, Galleria Doria Pamphilj), almost certainly in the city at that time, may have inspired Reni's elegantly posed angel, whose physiognomy shown in profile and framed with red-blond curls is quite similar. Reni also surely knew Titian's great Aldobrandini Madonna (London, National Gallery) and The Offering to Venus (Madrid, Museo del Prado), then in the collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini (1571-1621), who was another of Reni's early patrons in Rome. Indeed, in our picture, the angel presenting a bowl of fruit to the Madonna, who gingerly selects a piece, recalls the gestures of Saint John the Baptist and Mary in Titian's Aldobrandini Madonna. In the Venetian master's The Offering to Venus, cherubs cavort in front of a statue of Venus with woven baskets filled with fruit; the comparable motif in the present picture suggests that Reni was inspired by this iconic work as well. Several decades later, just a few years after his own arrival in Rome, Poussin too would look to The Offering to Venus, including his own woven fruit baskets in a Rest on the Flight into Egypt (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Stephen Pepper has suggested that the present copper may well have been commissioned by Cardinal Sfondrato, possibly reflected in a payment made by Sfondrato to Reni on 15 November 1602. He has further suggested that The Rest on the Flight into Egypt was among a group of 71 paintings which Cardinal Sfondrato sold to Cardinal Scipione Borhese (1576-1633) in 1608 (see S. Pepper, 1990, in Accademia Clementina, loc. cit.). Cardinal Borghese was himself a renowned patron of the arts and one of the most important supporters of the young Bernini. The Cardinal built the Villa Borghese in Rome to house his magnificent collection, including works by Fra Angelico, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and Caravaggio, as well as ancient sculpture. The present copper is recorded in a 1650 inventory of the Villa Borghese: 'Nel camerino che segue, pieno tutto di quadri piccoli, la Madonnina vicino al letto, alla quale un angelo presenta una tazza di fruti e di Guido Reni' ('in the little room that follows, completely full of small pictures, the small Madonna near the bed, in which an angel presents a tazza of fruit, is by Guido Reni'). It appears again in the Borghese inventory of 1693, which records: '...un quadretto simile, la Madonna il Bambino San Giuseppe e San Giovannino con un angelo che porta una canestra di frutti del n. 485 cornice dorata di Guido Reni' ('...a similar small picture, the Madonna, the Christ child, Saint Joseph, and the young Saint John with an angel who carries a basket of fruit, in a gilded frame no. 485 by Guido Reni'; see P. Della Pergola, loc. cit.). Long sheltered in one of the most celebrated and important art collections in all of Rome, this intimate copper reveals the virtuosic precision of handling, emotional sensitivity, and formal sophistication for which Reni's art is renowned. It also sheds light on a rich and formative moment in the career of one of the greatest artists of seicento Italy.