by Tom Root, oil on canvas
Collection of Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee

"The Rest on the Flight to Egypt" is one of my favorite themes in Western art. My favorite version is probably the Gerard David at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  I also love the Veronese at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. I had long wanted to try the theme for myself, thinking that it would be interesting to set the scene at an interstate expressway rest area.  Perhaps I’ll do that painting someday, but this one is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This painting was done in my studio from live sittings with the models, including the dog.  (The only things not done from life were the birds in the upper right corner.) It is painted on a very heavy weave linen canvas.  I organized the painting using strong outline, local coloring, and a compression of tonal values.  I did not use naturalistic perspective, but collapsed and stacked the space for decorative purposes.  Scroll down for more on how and why the painting was done.

I started with sketches from my model Heather and her infant daughter.

I transferred the drawings to my canvas and then painted a monochrome underpainting of the mother and child from more sittings. Around the central figures I freely composed the placement of the other major elements in charcoal. With these compositional gestures in mind, I went back and did separate studies in the studio and on location in the mountains.

I brought my dog Clio into the studio and she had literally to “sit” for the dog in the painting. I held her collar with my left hand to keep her in position while I painted.  I so liked the study that I decided to keep it as a separate portrait. I brought in my other dog, Alice, to complete the portrait. It took many dog biscuits to achieve this result.

I parked my old Dodge pickup truck on the street below my studio, and looked out the studio windows and painted it directly onto the canvas. I got these biscuits from a restaurant kitchen down the street.

Here is the description on the plaque that hangs on the wall next to the painting:

HOLIDAY (Rest on the Flight to Egypt)

The Rest on the Flight to Egypt has been a perennial theme in Western art.  The scene is based on Matthew 2:13, 14, and on popular medieval legends. Artists have typically portrayed the scene in a somewhat playful manner, emphasizing the humanity of the infant Christ.

Of this painting, the artist says: “This depiction of a modern family on a picnic is meant to echo the well known theme, suggesting the way ordinary human life is ennobled by the Incarnation.

 “Art in the last century has gone through a thorough desacralization (and a resulting degradation) of the human image. I am attempting, however tentatively, a kind of re-sacralization by updating ancient conventions through fresh observation and formal experimentation.”

And here is a little more explanation from a letter I wrote to a friend:

"The painting is my take on an old theme in painting. I wasn’t thinking of the painting hanging in a seminary when I designed it, and the seminary context changes things somewhat—it makes the identification with the Holy Family a little more explicit than I perhaps intended, just because one would expect to see a religious painting in a seminary.

"You asked about the symbolism in the painting.  Let’s see: The mother wears a rose, and roses are often associated with Mary in painting; the hats are visual puns on halos. But most things pictured are just interesting human things. The mother paints in watercolors and is a bird watcher, mainly because I like women who do that kind of thing. The baby has a pacifier because my cute little baby model was rolling around the model stand with a pacifier and it made me laugh.  The painting was built around this bit of observed life."

Images Copyright 2004 Tom Root