Friday, December 24, 2010

The Flight into Egypt

Title: The Flight into Egypt
Artist: George Hitchcock
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 113 x 166 cm
Date: 1892
Location: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Matthew 2:14-15: Joseph got up. During the night, he left for Egypt with the child and his mother Mary. They stayed there until King Herod died. So the words the Lord had spoken through the prophet came true. He had said, "I chose to bring my son out of Egypt."

By quoting the beginning of Hosea's prophecy, Matthew declares that Jesus' sojourn in Egypt fulfills the prophecy. Matthew evokes the passage as a whole and shows how Jesus is the forerunner of the new exodus, the time of ultimate salvation. Matthew uses God's pattern in history to remind us that our call and destiny must define us. We are the people of the new exodus, the people of God's kingdom. Matthew's quotation from Hosea also reminds us that Jesus identifies with his people's heritage. Jesus appears as the promised one greater than Moses and the heir of God's call to Israel. As God protected Moses when Pharaoh killed the male Israelite children, so God protects Jesus.

In this depiction Hitchcock secularized the subject, placing the biblical figures in the landscape of Holland, where he lived for some time. This prompted a critic of the day to write: “It is a very gracious arrangement of color, but entirely without value as a sacred picture.” However, such a view fails to take into account earlier iconography of this event. The background to these scenes usually included a number of apocryphal miracles, such as blooming flora, and gave an opportunity for the emerging genre of landscape painting. During the 16th century, as interest in landscape painting grew, the subject became a popular one for paintings, often with the figures small in a large landscape. The subject was especially popular with German Romantic painters, and later in the 19th century was one of a number of New Testament subjects which lent themselves to Orientalist treatment.

George Hitchcock (1850–1913), was an American artist born in Providence, Rhode Island. He studied law at Harvard and practiced at the bar until age twenty-nine, when he turned to art. In 1879 he worked at the Académie Julian in Paris and the next year established a studio in Holland where he remained for the rest of his life. He first established his reputation as a painter of large-scale religious paintings in which biblical subjects are garbed in contemporary peasant dress. He later turned from these loosely brushed works in silvery gray light to more brilliantly colorful, sunlit paintings of Dutch tulip fields and peasant women in colorful local dress. Though less well known today, during his life he was regarded in Europe and America as one of the best painters of his period.

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