A spring-fed watering trough nestled among ancient ruins high in a mountainous pass has enticed a plethora of people and animals to its refreshing water. As cattle drink and sheep rest in the surrounding glade, the area buzzes with so much activity that it is easy to overlook the insignificant-looking group of travelers passing under an archway in the background. Small in scale and depicted in subdued colors, the figures seem the least important of all those present, yet they are none other than the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. The three shepherds near the watering trough have doffed their caps because the mysterious light shining down on them has made them realize that they are in the presence of the Christ Child.
Savery painted this scene during an extremely productive and successful period following his move to Utrecht in 1619. The exotic character of his mountainous landscapes reflects his travels in the Alps and in Bohemia during his residence at the court of Rudolph II in Prague between 1604 and 1614, but his paintings are essentially creations of his imagination. During the 1620s Savery received major commissions from the city of Utrecht, and his paintings were collected in courts throughout Europe. Although his work at this time could no longer be called innovative, his superb skills were highly valued and enabled Savery to continue to paint in his mannerist style long after artistic trends in other centers had begun to focus on more naturalistic images of the Dutch countryside.
A spring-fed watering trough nestled among ancient ruins high in a mountainous pass has drawn to it both man and animal, seeking nourishment from its refreshing waters. As cattle drink eagerly from the trough and sheep rest in the surrounding sun-drenched glade, activity abounds on all sides. Two travelers dressed in exotic red and green costumes gesture expansively as they talk together near the base of an adjacent ruin. Wild deer and goats in the deeply shadowed foreground react to the commotion caused by a cowherd trying to lead his cattle and goats away from the spring. The sky above is filled with large birds circling the vine-covered, circular ruins, while others head off into the distance flying in a V formation.
Almost lost in this plethora of human and animal life is a group of travelers led by camels. The travelers have already nourished themselves and are departing along a path that leads through an old stone archway to the rear. Small in scale and depicted only in ochers, the figures seem the least significant of all those present, yet the man, who has turned to look back at the scene, and the woman riding the donkey and holding her child, could be none other than the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. No episode from the Bible, or from other accounts of the traumatic days during which Joseph, Mary, and the young Jesus fled Bethlehem, corresponds with this scene, but Savery’s imaginative mind has here conceived a scenario for the family’s traversal of the rugged terrain. As they fled, their identity remained unknown to most of those whom they met, but occasionally the story of their flight preceded them and the Child’s divinity was then revealed to those who truly believed. Here, the three shepherds near the watering trough have doffed their caps because they have realized that they are in Christ’s presence. One of them kneels, but the other two stare upward as though the light shining down were a miraculous one, just as on that day when an angel appeared before shepherds to announce the birth of the Child. The two gesturing figures near the Holy Family, less content than the shepherds to pause in simple adoration, may well be discussing excitedly the revelation that has just occurred. For the rest, particularly the cowherd tugging his cow’s ear to lead his herd away from the water and the light, Christ’s presence has gone unnoticed.
Savery painted this scene during an extremely productive and successful period following his move to Utrecht in 1619. By the 1620s his style had been well formed and clearly had great appeal. During these years he received major commissions from the city of Utrecht, and his paintings were collected in courts throughout Europe. Although his work could no longer be called innovative, patrons still valued Savery’s superb mastery, and Utrecht’s international flavor allowed him to continue to paint in his mannerist style long after artistic trends in other centers had begun to focus on naturalistic images of the Dutch countryside. As in this example, Savery divided his fanciful landscapes into distinct zones of alternating light and dark to provide a framework for the multiple activities he invariably included in his scenes.
The exotic character of Savery’s mountainous landscapes reflects his own travels in the Tyrolean Alps and in Bohemia when he was working at the court of Rudolph II, but the landscape formations and the ruins in his paintings are essentially creations of his own imagination. Likewise, though Savery drew animals from life, those in his paintings are arranged in ways that have little to do with everyday reality. Drawing from the inspiration of his older brother Jacques, with whom he studied before the latter’s death in 1603, Savery delighted in bringing together in the same composition a wide range of animals such as might have lived in the Garden of Eden or listened to the harmonies of Orpheus’ lyre.
For examples of such themes in Jacques Savery’s work, see Roelant Savery in seiner Zeit (1576–1639) (Cologne, 1985), nos. 93, 94.
The retardataire style of Landscape with the Flight into Egypt is particularly evident as its compositional prototypes are paintings Savery made during the 1610s. The earliest known of these is a fanciful landscape, signed and dated 1616,which is also the setting for a biblical subject, in this instance, the reconciliation of Jacob and Laban. In this work a comparable rounded ruin rises in the middle ground, at the base of which congregate cattle, cowherds, and the gesticulating figures of Jacob and Laban
Kurt J. Müllenmeister, Roelant Savery: Kortrijk 1576–1639 Utrecht, Hofmaler Kaiser Rudolf II, in Prag: die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog (Freren, 1988), 272, no. 168, repro.
This scene does not appear to depict a historicizing subject. See Kurt J. Müllenmeister, Roelant Savery: Kortrijk 1576–1639 Utrecht, Hofmaler Kaiser Rudolf II, in Prag: die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog (Freren, 1988), 278, no. 169.
The transformation of this scene from a fanciful landscape vista to a setting for an episode from the Bible, as seen in the Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, is consistent with the way Savery has elaborated all aspects of his composition. Compared with the Kortrijk version, the scene here includes more animals and activity. To help structure the added pictorial elements, Savery has separated more distinctly than previously the various zones within the landscape. The scene, as a result, takes on a more artificial character, which is exacerbated by Savery’s painting style in the 1620s, in which landscape elements are somewhat harder and less delicately rendered than in earlier years. Despite such tendencies toward a decorative style in Savery’s artistic evolution, this work is an impressive landscape, and one that has been beautifully preserved.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower left: .ROELANT / SAVERY FE / 1624
(Anthony Speelman, London); Robert H. Smith, Washington, D.C., by 1988; (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 14 January 1988, no. 86, bought in); Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Smith, Washington, D.C.; gift 1989 to NGA.
- Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1991, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 54.
- Müllenmeister, Kurt J. Roelant Savery: Kortrijk 1576–1639 Utrecht, Hofmaler Kaiser Rudolf II, in Prag: die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog. Freren, 1988: 272, no. 168a, 275, repro.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 324, color repro.
- National Gallery of Art. Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1991: 56-57, color repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 360-363, color repro. 361.
- Gifford, E. Melanie. "Jan van Goyen en de techniek van het naturalistische landschap." In Jan van Goyen. Edited by Christiaan Vogelaar. Exh. cat. Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. Zwolle, 1996: 70-79.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 68, no. 54, repro.
The support consists of two horizontally grained oak boards joined horizontally at center. The panel has a slight convex warp, and a long check runs horizontally from the upper left comer. A thin, granular white ground was brush-applied overall except along narrow bands at the vertical edges. A dark reddish brown imprimatura was applied under the foreground. Infrared reflectography reveals brush-applied underdrawing, with the composition outlined and shadows crosshatched.
Paint was applied in thin, smooth layers modified by glazes and scumbles. Brushmarks are visible in the sky, and tiny flecks of impasto highlight the animals. Minimal amounts of inpainting, of two distinct applications, cover gray stains in the sky, minor losses at left, and losses along the edges, check, and panel join. No conservation work has been carried out since acquisition.
 Infrared reflectography was performed with a Hamamatsu c/1000–03 vidicon camera fitted with a lead sulphide tube and a Kodak Wratten 87A filter.
Related IconClass Terms
- landscape with ruins
- historical person +Rudolph II + patronage of
- Flight into Egypt