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Francis Danby

1793 – 1861

The Passage of the Red Sea by Francis Danby

The Passage of the Red Sea   1829

  Mezzotint with etching, engraved by G.H. Phillips after Francis Danby.
With the artists’ names in the plate.
Ref: F. Greenacre, Francis Danby, Tate Gallery, London, 1988, item no.133, also pp.24, 26-27, 97-98, 158, and 159.
S 610 x 831 mm; I 486 x 761 mm
Outstanding lettered proof impression of this magnificent mezzotint engraving, the enormous scale of which is perfectly suited to Francis Danby’s extravagant composition. Excellent impression with superb tonal range and deep, rich blacks. First issue proof, as published by M.H. Colnaghi on 1st January 1829. A particularly early impression with the engraved word PROOF to the right of the title space.

The Passage of the Red Sea, along with The Opening of the Sixth Seal, is one of the two most spectacular large scale mezzotints of Francis Danby's work. This engraving is based upon Francis Danby's highly acclaimed oil painting entitled The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt (now in the Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston), which was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer exhibition of 1825.

The painting was considered a triumph for Francis Danby and it was bought immediately for £500 by the Marquis of Stafford, President of the British Institution. It was on the strength of this work that Sir Thomas Lawrence, President of the Royal Academy, began to champion Francis Danby's cause openly and put the young artist forward as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy - a position to which he was duly elected. Despite this success, this impressive work was seen by both contemporary critics and almost all authors to the present day, as a piece directly rivalling the works of the then immensely successful and popular artist John Martin. Much argument has been put forward regarding accusations of plagiarism in both directions. However, The Passage of the Red Sea is the one work in which both artists can be said to have borrowed from one another at different times in their careers.

Sublime 'history' works of this nature were in vogue at the time and there is no question that their popularity had been solidly established by the spectacular paintings of John Martin. That Francis Danby's Red Sea composition was in this style is also beyond question, however, when all of the available facts are reviewed, it is clear that Danby's design was based directly upon elements combined from three of Martin's earlier paintings. What is most extraordinary is that Martin should have used this image of Danby's as the exact mirror for one of his own engravings some years later.

When Francis Danby began work upon his Red Sea design, John Martin's much praised oil painting of Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon was already well known. This work had been John Martin's first great critical success and had been exhibited in London for two years between 1816 and 1817. Francis Danby's picture follows the basic composition of John Martin's image almost exactly, although the City of Gibeon has been removed in Danby's design and the Valley of Ajalon has been replaced by churning waves. The distant pyramids and the gesture given to Moses in Danby's picture reflect those in John Martin's painting of The Seventh Plague of Egypt, which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy the preceding year (1824). Even the all-engulfing clouds and the massive, overwhelming sea in Danby's composition appear to have been taken from John Martin's earlier work The Destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii of 1822 (Tate Gallery, London).

Danby, who was in dire financial straits at this time, cannot have been unaware of the much publicised stories of the offers of 1,000 guineas which John Martin had been forced to turn down for his Herculaneum and Pompeii - a painting which had been pre-sold for the staggering sum of 800 guineas to the Duke of Buckingham. Indeed, contemporary critics such as Dr. Waagen described Danby's oil as "a piece painted for effect in the style of Martin" (Dr. G.F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England, London, 1838, vol.2, p.255). However, Danby's supporters prefer to refer to Richard Redgrave's quotation "It has been said that in The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt, and in pictures of that class, Danby was but an imitator of Martin; and certainly it is true that the multitude of figures, and the vastness of the scene, have some of the characteristics of that master. But the grand ideality of his treatment was truly Danby's own, and was kindred to the feeling which had already produced The Upas Tree, the Sunset at Sea, and Disappointed Love; ... Even in this Passage of the Red Sea there is far more of colour, far more terrible grandeur, and less of the tricky and mechanical qualities of art than in Martin." (Redgrave, pp.444-5)

Both artists continue to have their supporters today and the arguments refuse to subside. Regardless of preference, Francis Danby's Red Sea composition was a great success for the young artist and he sold the copyright of his oil painting to the dealer M. Colnaghi for £300 in 1827. Danby is recorded to have told his friend John Gibbons, with much pride, that the plate which Colnaghi intended to have engraved of this subject was to be bigger than John Martin's print of Belshazzar's Feast. The mezzotint was published in January 1829 under the title The Passage of the Red Sea and was as unqualified success, establishing Francis Danby's name far and wide.

The extraordinary conclusion to the saga surrounding this image came in 1833, when John Martin published his original mezzotint of Destruction of Pharaoh's Host for his Illustrations of the Bible series. Martin's engraving transpired to be barely more than a reversed version of Danby's picture. Whether he believed that the young Danby had plagiarised his images to create The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt or not, Martin clearly acknowledged that The Passage of the Red Sea represented a consummate example of the style which he had pioneered and a rendition which even he himself could not better!

The Passage of the Red Sea remains one of the most impressive large scale mezzotints of its type and it represents a significant landmark in the history of British Romantic art. On warm white wove paper, trimmed just within platemark at top and sides, but with full lettering and margins beyond image on all sides. Very good condition.