Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Rest on the flight into Egypt 1550s

Follower of Pietr Aertsen 

Rest on the flight into Egypt, Follower of Pietr Aertsen
Oil on Panel
16th Century
37 ¾ x 49 ¼ inches, 95.8 x 125 cm
Possibly Galerie Stern, Dusseldorf 1934.
“Joachim Beuckelaer: het markt – en keukenstuk in de Nederlanden 1550-1650”. Museum of Fine Art, Ghent 1986; p. 142, note (1).
Pietr Aertsen’s impact on the history of art is considerable. As the father of still-life painting he gave rise to a new direction in art. He was not only the first artist to paint scenes of daily life dominated by fruit, vegetables and meat, but was a pioneer of subject pictures not dominated by religion. Moreover, his pictures were set very obviously in the kitchens of ‘ordinary’ people, and in humble marketplaces. This alone was a remarkable innovation, but Aertsen’s entire approach to still-life painting was so original that its impact still strikes us as unusual today. As in this example, the intricate figurative rendering of the rich mounds of fruit are placed so prominently in the foreground as to be disarming. Conversely, the religious scene of Mary and Joseph on the flight into Egypt is here reduced almost to a token gesture. The composition is deliberately arresting.

Aertsen’s approach to the relative priorities of a picture’s subject matter – earthly pleasures in the foreground over spiritual symbolism in the background - was, literally, revolutionary. It went against a thousand years of art history. In this example, the three figures even have their backs turned on Mary and Joseph, who in turn are painted smaller than a cabbage. There has been much speculation over the inspiration for Aertsen’s work; were they inspired by classical text’s, or was the subsidiary role given to the religious scene deliberate, and meant to imply the dangers of short-term pleasure?

However, Aertsen’s mindset must be set in the context of his age. In sixteenth century Netherlands trade brought wealth to a new class of merchants and artisans. There is in Aertsen’s work no trace of elitism. And later historical events would prove the Netherlands to be fertile ground for Protestantism, and the abandonment of religious imagery and symbolism. Aertsen’s subjects, which proved popular throughout the century thanks to his nephew and pupil Jan Beuckelaer (c.1533-1574), must surely represent the proverbial ‘sign of the times’.

This picture is one of a number of versions of a scene produced by Aertsen’s workshop in the 1550s. It is thought that the original remains lost. It has been suggested that Aertsen and his assistants used stencils to replicate the patterns of the fruit, although this example contains a number of small differences from the four other versions. It is, for example, the only version in which the central figure is not reaching into the central pot, and, interestingly, it accords the religious scene of Mary and Joseph in the background considerably more space, as well as including two churches on the horizon.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth Craig for suggesting a possible attribution to Pieter Pietersz or Aert Pietersz who worked within Aertsen’s workshop.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.