William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Child Jesus Going Down with His Parents to Nazareth


Not on display

William Charles Thomas Dobson 1817–1898
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1090 × 900 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

This picture shows the twelve year old Jesus being carried back to Nazareth. This happened after Joseph and Mary had returned to Jerusalem and found Jesus with the elders in the Temple. The artist used chapter 2 of the Gospel according to St Luke as his source. Like other works by Dobson, this picture reflects the time he spent with the German Nazarene artists in Germany and Italy during the 1840s and 1850s. The Nazarene style was characterized by a fairly vigorous handling of gesture and design. This was to influence the Pre- Raphaelites. Dobson avoided the censure which greeted these artists because his characterization was diluted, as here, by a degree of sentimentalization.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on arched canvas 46 7/8 × 35 3/8 (1090 × 900)
Inscribed ‘WCTD 1856’ (in monogram) b.l.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: Perhaps bought from the artist by Baroness Burdett Coutts (d. 1906); the Rt Hon. W. Burdett Coutts MP, sold Christie's 4/5 May 1922 (177) 8 gns bt Sampson; New Gallery, Brown's Buildings, Liverpool c.1924; ...;? Hinson Fine Paintings, Sheffield c.1975; ...; anon. sale, Sotheby's Belgravia 25 October 1977 (137, repr. in col.) £1,700 bt? Colnaghi; ...; Fine Art Society by 1979; ...; anon. sale, Sotheby's 10 November 1981 (8, repr. in col.) bt in; Fine Art Society from whom bt by the Tate Gallery
Exh: RA 1857 (556)
Engr: Mezzotint by W.J. Edwards, ‘Arrival at Nazareth’, pub. Henry Graves & Co. 29 January 1867
Lit: Malcolm Warner, ‘Victorian Paintings at the Tate Gallery, Recent Acquisitions’, Apollo, CXXIII, 1986, p.260, fig.1

Dobson's picture depicts the twelve year old Jesus being carried back to Nazareth after Joseph and Mary had returned to Jerusalem and found him with the elders in the Temple. The artist used Chapter 2 of the Gospel according to St Luke as his source for this incident in the life of Christ.

Much of Dobson's output betrays the time he spent as a pupil of Sir Charles Eastlake and the period he passed in Italy and Germany during the 1840s and 50s-at which time he came into contact with the work of the Nazarenes. Whilst some aspects of Germanism in British Art were to prove controversial at this time, as, indeed, were Pre-Raphaelite treatments of religious subjects (as, for example in the case of Millais's ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, 1850, now Tate Gallery N03584), Dobson's pictures fared rather better with the general public. His cooler palette - which owes something to Nazarene influence - allied to that fairly rigorous handling of gesture and design inherited from the same source, and which he has in common with Eastlake and the Pre-Raphaelites, probably proved more acceptable because his characterization was diluted by a certain degree of sentimentalization.

Despite this, the reception which the critics gave ‘The Child Jesus’ at the time it was exhibited was not particularly enthusiastic. A writer in the Athenaeum stated that ‘Mr Dobson grows tiresome with his clean-painted saints, with no expression but a sort of pious and vacant stare’ and described the work as ‘ugly and too large and heavy’ (16 May 1857, p.633). John Ruskin in his Academy Notes thought the picture ‘very tender in expression, but common-place; and in general idea more or less false or improbable’ (E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, eds., The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, XIV, 1904, p.114).

When the picture was unframed for conservation treatment the bottom and right-hand edges of the canvas were found to be marked-up for the grid which the engraver used to copy the image onto his metal plate. The preliminary marks for the grid had been made in pencil, at centres of 2 1/8 in (52mm) along both edges. Pins (the pin holes only now remain) were then pushed into the canvas a fraction of an inch in from the edges and the grid of vertical and horizontal threads was then stretched over the surface of the canvas. In the area of the picture where more precision was needed in copying - the heads of the holy family - the size of the grid was reduced to 1 1/16 × 1 1/16 in (26 × 26mm).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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