Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a holiday bestseller

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Our bestselling print from the entire MFA Prints collection is Rest on the Flight into Egypt, by Luc Olivier Merson. Holiday cardsIt is a perennial favorite month over month, with sales jumping 400% during the holiday season. It has been licensed as a holiday card and note cards, and installed in six special exhibitions over the last 30 years, when not on view in the permanent galleries. It’s been printed, framed and shipped around the world. But what is the allure behind this 19th century painting?

Luc Olivier Merson considered himself one of the last defenders of classicism and the grand tradition of history painting. He won the Ecole des Beaux-Arts’ ultimate stamp of approval, the Prize of Rome, in 1867, and thereafter enjoyed critical and official success. A specialist in obscure historical and religious subjects, Merson received a number of commissions to decorate churches and public buildings. In 1879, Rest on the Flight into Egypt was exhibited in the Salon.

Merson is best known today as one of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s followers in the Orientalist manner. Painters like Lecomte de Nouy, Elihu Vedder and Benjamin Constant adopted Gérôme’s use of a hard outline and high-keyed color to treat Near Eastern subjects, adding a tinge of mystery unlike the older artist’s somewhat earthbound realism. Elihu Vedder, The Questioner of the SphinxAlthough Merson had never traveled to North Africa or the Near East, he was fascinated with Egypt. For these painters, the Egyptian desert, presided over by the eternal Sphinx, held a wealth of associations: the passage of armies of Bonaparte and Alexander the Great, the dawn of civilization in the ancient ruins of Palmyra, or even, as here in Merson’s work, the last despairing refuge of Christianity.

The story of the holy family’s journey into Egypt is narrated in the Bible. After the wise men came from the East seeking the infant Jesus, “the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, Rest on the Flight into Egyptsaying Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring you word; for [King] Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” The family paused for sleep on their desperate journey to escape. In Merson’s depiction, Joseph dozes beside a dying campfire while his donkey grazes on sparse desert grass. At left the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, crowned with a halo of light, sleep peacefully in the arms of a sphinx, its eyes turned to the heavens where the first stars have begun to appear.

For patrons and admirers of this style, the idealized realism, smooth glass surface and violet-tinged color of such paintings allowed them to be interpreted allusively; that is, the painting acted as a spur to the spectator’s personal reflection. The content of a work like Rest on the Flight into Egypt was merely the first layer of its meaning; after that it was meant to stimulate thoughts of philosophy, music and poetry.

Adapted by Maggie Loh from catalogue entries by Natasha F. Khandekar ("Delacroix to Munch: Nineteenth-century Visions") and Lucy MacClintock ("From Neoclassicism to Impressionism: French Art from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts").

Purchase your own copy of Merson's Rest on the Flight into Egypt or one of these other popular images often featured on holiday cards.

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