The subject is taken from Exodus 14: 19-31. The Israelites were shown the route to the Promised Land by God in the signs of a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night and they started their journey across Egypt. The Pharoah pursued with his army and when they reached the Red Sea, they took the path cleared by Moses for the Isrealites to cross safely, but were trapped when the water started to close upon them when the last of the Israelites had climbed ashore.
This remarkable work belongs to the early part of Kent’s career as a painter in Rome.
Sir Ellis Waterhouse notes that Kent was sent to Italy in 1709 “by a consortium of Yorkshire gentlemen to learn painting and produce copies of old masters. He studied under Benedetto Luti and was generally influenced by Maratta and his followers.” Kent was in Rome for ten years, with visits to Naples and the Veneto, winning a prize for painting from the Accademia di San Luca in 1713. His most important Roman work of this period was the ceiling of San Giuliano dei Fiamminghi in1717, but he also executed works after old masters. One such piece is St.Nilo healing a possessed child (36 x 43 1/2 in.) after Domenichino, given to Lionel Massingberd and sold by his descendant at Christie’s in 1960. It is interesting that our picture is based on a frescoe in the Vatican Loggia executed by Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano between 1515-18. The artist’s concern with the detail of the chariot and its wheel, the gold of which contrasts with the grey of the horses, point to Kent’s future role as a furniture designer and is reflected in the gold-grey harmonies of his decorations for Kensington Palace. Several of the facial types and the somewhat awkward poses are also to be found in the St.Nilo.
Kent subsequently developed into one of the leading triumvirate of Palladian designers and architects, the other members being Lord Burlington and Capability Brown. Burlington remained Kent’s most loyal patron, accompanying him on his return from Italy in 1719, commissioning the artist to decorate the ceilings of Burlington House (now the Royal Academy), and introducing him to some of his future clients. On the staircase and ceiling of the Long Gallery at Kensington Palace one sees Kent’s mastery of a decorative style that was formed by his years of study in Rome.
Dr. Cinzia Maria Sicca, Professor of Art History at the University of Pisa, who is studying Kent’s activity in Rome, has indicated on inspection of the painting that she believes it to be an early work by the artist. She has stated that “the subject might well fit within the range produced by Kent between 1716 and 1718, and this might well have been a pair with a painting he made for Cardinal Ottoboni.”