The Rest on the Flight to Egypt

Two types of preparatory drawing exist for The Rest On the Flight into Egypt, from the National Gallery of Canada. Study of these drawings and their relationship to the final painting gives information about the creative process and its practice in Veronese’s workshop.

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt was probably painted in the early 1570s, at a time when demand for Veronese’s work necessitated increasing workshop involvement. This painting clearly shows the participation of studio assistants working at every stage, from initial drawing to its final touches. Paolo likely finished the more important passages: the face of the Madonna, the Christ child, and the angel. While the preparatory drawing from the British Museum is by Paolo, the initial drawing on the canvas which stems from this is likely by Benedetto. This underdrawing is applied directly in black paint; elsewhere on the canvas other forms of drawing were used. The form of the ruined arch was incised into the wet gesso and the angel may have been transferred by use of a cartoon.

In autograph work like the Magdalene, Veronese modified his composition at each stage of creative process. While some of the initial drawing on the Rest on the Flight into Egypt is direct and assured, it does not show his lively touch, and thereafter the painting was developed rather mechanically.

The following images illustrate practice in Veronese’s workshop.

Primo Pensiero
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Paolo Veronese
Various Sketches of the Madonna and Child, Veronese
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
20.5cm x 23.4cm

Primo Pensiero

This crowded sheet of drawings shows Veronese exploring variations on the theme of the Madonna and Child. It is a starting point for the Ottawa Rest on the Flight into Egypt and another painting bearing the same name in the collection of The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. This type of drawing, often called a primo pensiero, or first thought, allowed the artist to explore forms and is a type of visual creative thinking. The dynamic lines of this drawing only suggest figures and volumes, and at this stage of the creative process Veronese was not required to develop them fully. This sheet was retained in the workshop, and later referred to as inspiration for several paintings. On the centre of the sheet we see the figures that would eventually evolve into those in the Ottawa painting.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt
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Paolo Veronese
Rest on the Flight into Egypt
C.1565-1570
The British Museum, London

Preparatory Drawing

This work is a preparatory study worked up from the ideas in the Cleveland sheet, and would have been one of the drawings used for the Ottawa canvas. The figures in the drawing are on a much larger scale than the Cleveland, calling for greater detail. In dark wash with chalk highlights on mid-toned coloured paper, it resolves volume and modeling – therefore taking the initial study a step further. At first glance, the forms of the figures in the drawing and Ottawa painting are somewhat different. However, technical study of the painting shows many points of similarity in the underdrawing stage in certain areas. Whoever was responsible for the underdrawing of the Madonna and Child (perhaps Benedetto) adapted Paolo’s initial drawings, and was clearly trusted by the master. However, in the process of developing this figure in paint, the logic of the drawing was lost: the position of the Madonna’s right leg is unclear.

Composite image of the British Museum preparatory drawing and the underdrawing of the Ottawa Rest on the Flight to Egypt
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Composite image of the British Museum preparatory drawing and the underdrawing of the Ottawa Rest on the Flight to Egypt

Underdrawing

Through infrared reflectography of the painting, it is possible to see the black paint underdrawing. This detail shows part of the Madonna’s skirts as seen in (IR), superimposed over the preparatory drawing. In this part of the painting the forms closely correspond. The similarity between the two shows that the British Museum drawing was used in creating the painting. The differences elsewhere in the figural group show that this drawing was not slavishly transferred – suggesting that the workshop was highly collaborative.

Painting - The Rest on the Flight to Egypt
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Paolo Veronese and his workshop
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1560-1583
Oil on canvas
163.5 x 263 cm,
National Gallery of Canada

Painting - The Rest on the Flight to Egypt

As finished, the painting shows less correspondence with the British Museum drawing. The layers of paint considerably modified the preliminary sketch on the canvas. As the painting was developed, some of the logic from the preparatory drawing – even in those areas where the underdrawing closely followed it – was lost. Possibly this is due to the fact that the execution was left to assistants in the workshop. Despite this, it is still a very aesthetically satisfying painting and recognizably “Veronese” in its quality and inventiveness.