Carracci – Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (Baroque)
Location: Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome / Artist: Annibale Carracci
Date: 1604 / Medium: Oil on canvas
Annibale Carracci’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt came only seven years after Caravaggio’s exploration of the same theme—an interesting coincidence, if coincidence it was. Indeed, it may have been more of a challenge, given the conflicting styles of both contemporary baroque painters.
Style analysis reveals the disparity between the two painters fairly quickly: Caravaggio’s art contains heavy darks and lights (a technique known as tenebrism), almost brutal and harsh in nature. Similarly, the figures in his paintings are darker in theme than the average baroque style, representations of the real over the ideal, the grim over the lighthearted. He was the key component in art’s break from the classicized idealism that Michelangelo had popularized until that time, and his style was radical—he exercised unprecedented (and often unappreciated) control over how he composed his commissions.
Carracci was technically within the same artistic movement as Caravaggio, and they were even in communication as contemporaries. Both of them were artistic pioneers who broke off from the mainstream of mannerism and returned art to a more classically influenced age. Caravaggio, however, took a drastically different route, his models taken from nature (often not the pretty side of nature, either) while Carracci approached his innovation more mildly, allowing classical inspiration not only to drive his technique but to bleed through into the very philosophy of his painting. He moderated his tones and focused on revealing the beauty in nature in a typically ideal classical form.
Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, as we examined last time, represents a very different approach to the subject than Carracci’s later efforts, though the similarities are sometimes more prevalent than general knowledge of their individual styles would lead one to expect.
The composition of Carracci’s painting is all about the landscape. The first thing that catches our eye is not the holy family, but the castle on the hill and the riverbank directly behind them. The painting is distinctly layered, with the foreground, river, hill, and sky stratifying the picture into four layers. The lines in the painting converge on broad focusing points on the castle and the horizon, emphasizing nature over the importance of the religious figures. The colours are shaded softly and the colours are natural; the painting is relaxed and quietly spiritual without an overwhelming focus on any one point. Even the castle on the hill is downplayed and relegated to the background, giving nature the predominant position in the picture. The setting is peaceful and idyllic, very reminiscent of classical philosophy in its idealism and glorification of nature over the human.
If we glance back at Caravaggio’s depiction of the scene we notice a stark difference. Caravaggio’s is certainly more indicative of the personal emotion and beauty of the baroque period, and much of his painting is not actually done in the more extreme style he later tended towards. The center of his painting is a very small space with the actors close together, interacting in obvious, occasionally symbolic ways. The colours are dark and the shading is stark, with contrasts clearly demarcated. The painting is separated into only two parts and the structure is far more focused than Carracci’s rambling style. The painting is spiritual, but in a way that seems untraditional. Both the setting and the characters are idealized in an almost secularized way. The landscape overall is much gloomier, making the characters shine forth with their own illumination rather than being illuminated from something outside themselves.
Carracci’s characters are hardly to be ignored in favour of his landscape, however. The Virgin Mary leads, holding Jesus, while Joseph—bent and old, as usual—prods the donkey out of the water. The boatman and shepherds in the background are off in worlds of their own, while Mary is looking slightly back. The holy family is quite obviously a unit, but in the whole of the painting that is all they amount to—a single part of the painting. The member of their unit that is closest to the bottom center of their painting is, in fact, the donkey.
Personally, however, I prefer this approach to Caravaggio’s. Carracci makes the story of the painting obvious, but does not throw it in our faces, not overemphasizing the holy family or adding anything extrabiblical. This is a change from most previous artists, who, if they were going to depict the family, depicted it in detail and idealised the figures. Carracci prefers to forego the detail to the figures and idealise the landscape. The change in emphasis is refreshing, and Carracci’s beautiful landscape seems more reverent than most of the tight-focus depictions of the holy family I have seen.
“Carracci.” Carracci. Depaul University. Web. 13 Apr. 2012. <http://condor.depaul.edu/sjost/gph205/artist-reports/carracci.htm>.
“Landscape with the Flight to Egypt.” Famiglia Doria Pamphilj. Web. 13 Apr. 2012. <http://www.doriapamphilj.it/ukfuga.asp>.
“Web Gallery of Art, Image Collection, Virtual Museum, Searchable Database of European Fine Arts (1000-1850).” Web Gallery of Art, Image Collection, Virtual Museum, Searchable Database of European Fine Arts (1000-1850). Web. 13 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/c/carracci/annibale/2/f_egypt.html>.