Painting Description and Analysis:
Luc-Olivier Merson's 1879 painting Rest on the Flight into Egypt
is a vivid and dramatic reinterpretation of a tale from the Old Testament that has fascinated Western painters for centuries. Merson, the star of the 1866 Paris Salon and the 1869 Prix de Rome, spent a great deal of time honing his talent in Italy, concentrating on large-scale historical canvases, rendered with intricate, photo-realistic detail. Returning to France in 1875, the year that the Impressionists
were staging their second independent exhibition, Merson became a leading figure in the Academic circles of French painting that found itself on the conservative side of a rapidly changing visual culture. Seen as a leading figure of the emerging Symbolist
movement, Merson's vast, resonant images are highly-finished works of immense spectacle. Yet, forgotten upon his death in 1920 in favour of the dominant and energetic avant-garde scene of early-twentieth century Paris, the artist's work has not received the critical attention it deserves.
From the Renaissance
period onward the tale of Jesus' earthly father, Joseph choosing to flee with his wife Mary and the infant Christ the infanticide of the King Herod has captivated the imagination of the most progressive and experimental painters. Merson's reproduction of the scene could not be more of a departure from Gerard David
's 1510s version, Annibale Carracci
's 1604 version, or particularly Caravaggio
's 1597 version in which the Baroque
figures indulge in a modern drama fed by the biblical tale. Instead, Merson's Rest on the Flight into Egypt
challenges the idyllic take and the idealized world of the earlier images. Instead, the artist captures the pain of exile, the aimless wandering of the diaspora, and the stark desolation of the desert night. A remarkably humanist reproduction of the biblical scene, Merson's painting is a moving and tragic prediction of the flights of refugees that would be seen in the proceeding century.
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