The Flight into Egypt, 1862. Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches (91 x 102 cm). Click on image to enlarge it.
Stanhope has treated this favourite subject of the Old Masters in the manner of the Florentine Renaissance painters. Stanhope would have seen Giotto’s famous version of this subject at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua on his visit to Italy in 1853. He would also have been familiar with Correggio’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt with Saint Francis in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The story is taken from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, verses 13-23. King Herod had ordered the death of every male child that was under two years of age in order to destroy the boy destined to become Ruler of Israel, the so-called massacre of the Innocents. “Now when they [The Three Magi} had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’” William Holman Hunt later treated this story in his three versions of The Triumph of the Innocents, the earliest dating to 1870-76. Stanhope would also have been familiar with the Edward Burne-Jones stained-glass window design for St. Michael’s in Brighton, a church restored by G. F. Bodley. Both designs show Mary holding the Christ child and riding on a donkey.
[Click on images to enlarge these details.]
In Stanhope’s picture the Holy Family have stopped to rest and are conversing with a young woodcutter dressed in medieval clothing. Joseph’s proportions are incorrectly rendered making him appear impossibly tall. He carries a geometrically patterned Middle Eastern container in his right hand, which may perhaps relate to one of the gifts given by the magi. His hat resembles those worn by the rabbis in Holman Hunt’s The Finding of the Savior in the Temple of 1854-60. Mary is shown in her traditional colours of a Marian blue dress and a red cloak that symbolized Mary’s humanity, red being the colour of our life’s blood. Like many of the Florentine Renaissance paintings the setting is not the landscape of Israel but is set instead in a verdant forest and meadow with beautifully observed flowers in the foreground. The pointed sharpened stick in Joseph’s left hand and the ominous-looking pointed branch in the left foreground perhaps prefigure the crucifixion.
When Stanhope’s picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1862 the critic of The Art Journal was obviously not a fan of Pre-Raphaelite “affectations”:
“The Flight into Egypt’ (573). R. S. Stanhope takes us back to the swart and dry painters of the Florentine school; the highest lights are what are really middle tint, and the general field of the composition is dull, dark, and opaque. One purpose in the cast of the chiar-oscura seems to have been to eschew as much as possible relief and definition; the ass, for instance, on which the Virgin is mounted is of a tone as low as the dark palings beyond. It appears that the author of this work has been entirely borne away by his solicitude for the imitation of a manner in which is sunk every shade and degree of beauty, character, and expression. The ‘Flight into Egypt’ is an essay that places a painter in contrast with the most eminent professors of the art, the fresh impressions of whose works are not favourable to such a conception as this. We see in it nothing more than the affectation of a manner, a most perilous fallacy yet much prevalent. It is remarkable that the advocates of this kind of painting uniformly prefer ugliness to beauty, maintaining that the former is character and expression. .
F. G. Stephens in The Athenaeum voiced much the same criticism as well as condemning Stanhope’s draughtsmanship
Neglect of beauty, carelessness of execution and sacrificing all grace of Art to mere expressiveness, are errors against which young painters need warning. None require this more than Messrs. R. S. Stanhope and V. C. Prinsep, whose pictures – The Flight into Egypt (No. 573) and How Bianca Capello sought to Poison the Cardinal de Medici (216) – show feeling for expression, character and colour, not often found in such young hands, travestied and made unpalatable by awkward drawing in the first, and slovenly treatment in the second. How can painters expect the public rightly to appreciate such executional crudities and whimsicalities? 
The Saturday Review at least praised Stanhope’s colour: “The Flight into Egypt” (537), by R. S. Stanhope, is a singular aberration, with occasional reminiscences of colour-combinations of the great old colourists” (531).
“The Royal Academy Exhibition.” The Art Journal New Series 1(1862): 129-38.
“The Royal Academy.” The Saturday Review 13 (May 10, 1862), 530-31.
Stephens, Frederic George. “Fine Arts. Royal Academy.” The Athenaeum, No. 1804 (May 24, 1862): 699-700.
Trippi, Peter B. “John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope. The Early Years of a Second Generation Pre-Raphaelite 1858-73.” M.A. Thesis. Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1993.
Last modified 8 May 2022