The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

A painting with a fascinating and convoluted backstory, which showed the early promise of a Renaissance master and went on to nab the attention of everyone from emperors to thieves—and was once left at a bus stop for good measure—is expected to create even more intrigue at an upcoming auction at Christie’s in London.

The oil-on-canvas painting The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, created by Italian Renaissance master Titian in the early 1500s, leads the Old Masters Part I auction at Christie’s in London on July 2. It has a third-party guarantee, meaning it is guaranteed to sell. With a presale estimate of £15 million to £25 million, or $19.1 million to $31.9 million in U.S. currency, it is expected to set a new auction record for the artist.

Tiziano Vellecio, better known as Titian, showed artistic talent at an early age. He couldn’t have been much older than 10 when he traveled from his small home village of Pieve di Cadore to Venice, one of 16th-century Europe’s most important centers for art, culture, and commerce. Titian worked as an apprentice for the city’s leading painter, Giovanni Bellini.

While in Venice, at the beginning of his career, Titian painted The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The painting shows a scene inspired by the Gospel of Matthew, with Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to Egypt for his safety. Titian’s mastery of composition, color, and emotion is already visible. The influence of his surroundings can be seen as well. Dyes and pigments were among the many goods traded in Venice at the time, giving Titian access to the vivid shades of red, yellow, and blue in the figures’ clothing. The landscape and plant life resemble the scenery that Titian may have grown familiar with on his travels between his home and Venice.

The first known owner of the painting is Bartolomeo della Nave, a 17th-century Venetian spice merchant who collected paintings by major artists of the time. It was passed along to Sir James Hamilton, 3rd Marquess of Hamilton, and then to the Habsburgs, who displayed it at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, which is a museum today. When Napoleon’s troops invaded and occupied the city in 1809, it was one of the paintings they looted. It was returned to Vienna in 1815.

In 1878, John Alexander Thyme, 4th Marquess of Bath, purchased The Rest on the Flight into Egypt at a Christie’s auction and displayed it in the State Drawing Room of Longleat House in Wiltshire, England. The painting stayed there until it was stolen in 1995. Charles Hill, a detective who had helped recover The Scream by Edvard Munch when it was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994, led the investigation, and it was found in 2002 in a plastic bag at a bus stop in London. The painting was returned to Longleat House.

From its creation by a developing genius in one of Renaissance Europe’s greatest cities to its looting by Napoleon’s troops to its 1995 theft and remarkable recovery, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt has a long, fantastic history. If it sells for as much as expected, a record price will be only the latest event in its story.

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