‘The painting gives us an idea of how Abraham’s clan dressed and looked. Note the women’s headbands, the style of clothing of both sexes, the short beards of the men, their animals, weapons and tools.’
‘Each woman had her own tent. It was her domain, containing her possessions. In it, she received her husband when he cared to visit. She raised her children there and also housed any personal servants she might have.’
It was the duty of the owner of the slave to look after his ‘property’ well, and there were strict laws about the treatment of slaves (Exodus 21, Genesis 17:12-12). The owner of a slave was allowed to beat the slave as long as no serious injury was done. If a slave died after being beaten, the owner was punished.
An intact jug showed virginity; a broken vessel denoted loss of virginity
Dishevelled clothes could mean dishevelled virtue
Red meant passion or active sexuality
White hair or beard denoted age and/or wisdom
Angels were messengers of God and a sign that an act of providence would occur
A raised hand with palm turned outwards means the person accepts no responsibility
A dominating stance showed dominance in the relationship
A ruined house pointed to a society in decay
Note the body language, especially the hands and body position. Everything has a message.
Hagar is given to Abraham
‘Sarah presenting Hagar to Abraham’, Adriaen van der Werff, 1699
Sarah offers an uncertain Hagar to her husband Abraham. Any child resulting from their union would legally be Sarah’s, since Hagar was her personal slave. On the other hand, if Hagar plays her cards well she might become the favored concubine of the tribal leader, rather than a mere slave.
Tremendously successful during his lifetime, van der Werff did not shy away from introducing a note of eroticism in his paintings. Unlike other painters, he portrayed Abraham as virile and handsome. Sarah, on the other hand, is well past her use-by date.
‘Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham’, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615- 1617
The rich fabric of Sarah’s gown and the voluptuous red of Hagar’s, says it all. Hagar has power and wealth. Hagar has youth, sexual allure and an unborn child. Sarah cannot stand the sight of her, and drives her out like a stray dog that has overstayed its welcome. An ineffectual Abraham stands half-in, half-out of the doorway.
Rubens excelled at painting voluptuous goddesses and here are two more of them, albeit in the form of biblical heroines. The painting is exuberantly sensuous, with raw passions all too visible. Rubens’ luminous colors highlight the emotional energy of the scene portrayed: Sarah’s murderous jealousy and Hagar’s perplexed, conciliatory response.
‘Expulsion of Hagar’, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1719
Tiepolo’s beautiful, terrified Hagar begs for mercy, but Abraham is unyielding: she must leave, and leave now. He towers over her prostrate figure, showing us clearly that he is the one with the power and she, despite her beauty and vulnerability, has lost the influence she once had.
The background details of the painting seem curiously unsuitable for a nomadic tribal scene, but they do suggest the wealth and power of Abraham, and the almost divine status of certain biblical figures in Western culture. As a painter, Tiepolo was an international star, famous and pampered by the royal courts of Europe, the 18th century equivalent of a rock-star.
‘Hagar Weeping’, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1640’s
This painting was cut from a larger canvas, so we have only part of the original scene. Is this Hagar’s first flight from Sarah, or is it fourteen years later when she is cast into the desert with her son? I would guess it is the former, since Hagar seems to be a young girl in this painting, rather than a mature woman. She is turning to look up at the angel behind her, the positioning of her beautiful hand suggesting that she is taken aback by what she sees.
Van den Eeckhout was another of Rembrandt’s pupils, probably studying with him in the late 1630’s. But the style of this painting shows he had moved away from Rembrandt’s influence and was painting images clearer and more precise than his teacher’s.
Hagar, almost lost in the immensity of Nature, senses the presence above her of a messenger from God. She looks upwards, straining to understand what the Angel is saying. The Angel urges her away from the towering rock cliff and storm clouds ahead, back towards the clear blue sky and the land she has fled. One of my favorites.
Poussin, one of the greatest Baroque painters, was a poor boy made good. Born to an impoverished family, he trained in Paris then went to Rome, where he lived for most of his life. He returned briefly to Paris and was honored by Louis XIII, but the bitter jealousy that this caused made him decide to return to Rome in 1643. During his lifetime he was a respected intellectual, and after his death he influenced painters such as Jacques-Louis David, Cézanne and even Picasso.
Some interesting trivia: one of Poussin’s main patrons was Cardinal Richelieu, whom most people know as the villain in Dumas’ ‘Three Musketeers‘.
Abraham’s hand is raised in a gesture of rejection. Hagar’s face shows exhaustion and weary reproach, her eyes swollen with crying. Her little child cowers behind her for protection. Interestingly, it is not only Hagar and her little child who are suffering – van Leyden has given Abraham an expression full of doubt and regret.
Though he made some paintings, van Leyden was mostly known for his engravings, which were of remarkably fine quality. He knew Dürer, who made a drawing of him, and was admired by Rembrandt. His mastery of perspective is superb – look at the depth he is able to achieve on the flat surface of this picture of Abraham and Hagar.
Abraham expels Hagar and her son from his home, a piteous scene, but notice that she is moving away from darkness and towards light – this, despite the apparent hopelessness of her situation. Sarah stands at the doorway, a mean-spirited gleam in her eyes.
Victors painted biblical scenes for Calvinist (Protestant) patrons, pictures infused with his own religious beliefs and designed to encourage enquiry and discussion. He used rich colors and theatrical settings to engage the interest of viewers and lead them towards awareness of God’s continuing constancy and protection. After the mid-1650’s, Victors gave up painting to devote himself to caring for the sick, and he died in the East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) in 1676.
Sources give the year of this painting as 1635, but this would make Victors’ only 16 at the time. It seems a very accomplished work for such a young artist.
‘Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael’, Il Guercino (‘the man with the squint’). His original name was Giovanni Francesco Barbieri. 1657
Abraham raises one hand in a gesture of rejection. With the other, he points in the direction Hagar and their little son must go – out into the unforgiving desert. Hagar’s demeanor is one of reproach – she and her child are being treated unjustly. Sarah pointedly turns her back on what is happening. The scene and its message are painted with clarity and simplicity.
Il Guercino’s paintings are like watered-down Caravaggios. They have luscious colouring and consummate technique, but they somehow lack the impact of a Caravaggio painting, that ability to reach out and smack us in the eye. Nevertheless, they are beautiful, balanced, and perhaps more quietly thought-provoking.
This painting makes an interesting suggestion: that the quarrel was between the adults, not the children. Little Isaac offers his own cloak to his brother Ishmael as the older boy and his mother are ejected into the wilderness. Ishmael turns back not to his father Abraham but to his little brother.
‘Abraham Expelling Hagar and Ishmael’, Claude Lorraine, 1668
Abraham points outward – his gesture is assured, commanding. There will be no arguing. On the balcony behind them, almost hidden, stands Sarah watching her rivals go.
Lorraine was famous for his landscapes, and in this painting the figures of Hagar, Ishmael and Abraham are dwarfed by Nature. The artist seems to suggest that while they are important, they are only a small part of God’s plan. Lorraine used the landscape to mirror the story: Hagar must leave the shelter of civilization for the wilderness in the distance.
See Bible Housing for the way that nomadic herdsmen really lived.
Abraham embraces Ishmael with deep regret. Hagar’s expression is grim, with controlled panic at what is virtually a death sentence for herself and her son. Sarah watches, half-hidden, as the anguished farewells are made.
George Segal was an American sculptor and painter during the height of the Pop Art Movement. His chicken farm in New Jersey became the venue for the original art performance where the term ‘Happening’ was coined in 1957. His sculptured figures are life-sized – he used plaster bandages and live models to build them. Their color and melancholy have a ghost-like quality.
‘Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert’, Jean-Charles Cazin
‘Hagar and Ismael Seeking Water’, Hermine F Schäfer, 1964
The young boy Ishmael has collapsed in the searing heat of the desert, and his desperate mother now staggers forward under the load of his body. To the right of the picture is the bush under which she will place him. The discarded, empty water container lies uselessly on the ground behind her.
This is an illustration from Anne de Vries’ ‘Children’s Bible‘.
‘Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert’, Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661), 1630
Sacchi was known for his psychological penetration of the subject matter of his paintings, and his concentration on essentials. His paintings are serene, almost detached, and quite lovely.
But has Sacchi actually read the Bible account? He paints a beautiful young girl, presumably Hagar, in a rather innocuous landscape, hardly the arid, murderous wilderness of the Bible. Hagar’s son was around fourteen when he and his mother were ejected from Abraham’s tribe, and Hagar was no longer a very young woman. In fact, this painting seems to be half about Hagar, but also half about the Virgin Mary with Jesus.
Bible reference: Hard to say. If I had to choose, I’d say a slightly altered version of Matthew 2:13, which deals with the Flight into Egypt!
‘Hagar in the Wilderness’, Giovanni Lanfranco
Hagar has been crying, but is startled by the angel’s hand on her shoulder. Ishmael is behind her, clinging like a small frightened animal. Both of them are listening to the angel, who is pointing to a source of water – something that will save their lives. Dark colors on the left of the canvas are the past; light pours from the angel onto Hagar, and the angel’s hand points to a brighter future.
Langranco was one of the first painters of the Baroque style in Rome, and was much admired as a ‘progressive’. He was influenced by Tintoretto, and used powerful, almost monumental figures, luxuriously colored, to make an impact and focus the viewer on a central moment in the story.
The boy Ishmael is dying. Hagar is not separated from him, as the Bible states, but nurses his body in her arms. The cloud of Death handing over the boy is dispersed by the Angel’s presence.
Franceschini’s style has been described as Barochetto – a mixture of Baroque and Rococo. The paintings themselves could almost have been made on porcelain, so delicate are the colors. At the same time, there is sensuality in the skin tones – Hagar’s skin is still voluptuous, but Ishmael’s greyish pallor heralds his imminent death. The angel, on the other hand, seems bathed in golden light.
‘Hagar in the Wilderness’, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1726
The wan face and pallid little body of Ishmael look down at us from above. Hagar, however, is concentrating on the Angel, who is pointing to a source of water that will save both their lives.
Tiepolo was a master of color, perspective and composition, and these skills allowed him to excel in decorating architectural spaces such as the cupola shown here. Painting an illusionist ceiling, Tiepolo’s forte, is even more difficult to paint than a flat surface, but the trompe l’oeil effect was a technique at which he excelled. The illusion of depth in this painting by Tiepolo is masterly. Painting onto a ceiling is a physically arduous task, as Michelangelo no doubt could testify.
‘The Angel Appearing Before Hagar and Ishmael’,
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1732
This is an aristocratic Hagar now robbed of almost all she had. But her son, her most valued possession, remains. Her elegant hand points to the boy and seems to ask ‘Why? How could this have happened to one so innocent?’ The angel, hovering with its foot outstretched behind it, has no answer, but points to the water that will save the child.
Tiepolo had a somewhat melancholic style, and was drawn to strong contrasts of light and shade, or chiaroscuro. He used this style, coupled with a flair for the dramatic, in his painting of Hagar and Ishmael. Her gracefully arching neck and upturned face, the pallor of the little body lying beside her, the vigor of the angel, the interplay of light and darkness – these qualities combine to make a masterpiece.
The painting below is by Sebastiano Ricci, from about 1727. The similarities between the two picture are obvious: more or less the same pose and composition, though a more sombre note in Tiepolo’s, where Ishmael really does seem to be dying; a more voluptuous, less convincing Hagar. Which do you prefer?
Ishmael the Archer
‘Ishmael the Archer’, James Tissot, 1896
The image of Ishmael as an archer is hardly ever represented in Western art, but it draws on a verse about the continuing life of Hagar after she leaves Abraham. She lived with her son in the wilderness of Paran, and he became an expert archer.
Information: The location of the wilderness of Paran is unknown, but it may have been the Negev desert, or the area directly north of the Gulf of Aqaba. Tissot lived for a time in Palestine, researching the landscape and people for a series on the Old Testament. His paintings and drawings are more accurate and realistic than most 19th century biblical art.
Hagar was a lovely young slave belonging to Sarah, the powerful wife of Abraham.
‘After a public brawl between the two women, Sarah demanded that Hagar and her young son be expelled from the tribe and cast out into the desert – a virtual death sentence.’
Sarah had never had a child, so she decided to give Hagar to her husband, to be a surrogate who would have his child. Legally, the child would belong to Sarah and be Abraham’s heir, and Hagar could do all the hard work of bearing and looking after the baby.
Everything went to plan, and Hagar became pregnant. But the girl did not know her place, was not as subservient to Sarah as she should have been. Airs and graces, thought Sarah. The former queen-bee of the tribe felt threatened, probably quite frightened of the power this former slave now had. It was not just that she resented the ‘nouvelle’. This girl might be carrying the future head of the tribe, and if so she would replace Sarah as chief woman in the tribe. Sarah realized she had lost control of the situation.
We don’t know exactly what Sarah did to Hagar – the Bible just says she ‘mistreated’ her, but the heavily pregnant girl fled out into the wilderness, apparently trying to return to her family in Egypt. On the way, beside a spring of water, she had some sort of mystical experience. An angel appeared to her, blessed her, and told her to return to Abraham. The angel promised that a great people would arise out of the tiny baby she carried in her womb.
So Hagar returned to Abraham’s house, and had a son whom she named Ishmael. For a while there was an uneasy truce between the two women. The boy grew up, and Abraham circumcised Ishmael when he was thirteen.
The next year, to the astonishment of everyone, Abraham’s aged wife Sarah became pregnant with his second son, Isaac. As soon as she held the longed-for baby in her arms the rivalry between the two women flared up again, and quickly became intense.
After a public brawl between the two women, Sarah demanded that Hagar and her young son be expelled from the tribe and cast out into the desert – a virtual death sentence. Abraham provided Hagar and her child – his own son – with bread and a bottle of water and sent them to their fate.
They soon ran out of water and began to die. Hagar could not bear to watch her son dying of thirst, so she put him under the only shade she could find and crawled away to die. But again an angel appeared to help her, showing her a spring of water. She and the boy were saved, and lived on in the wilderness of Paran, where Ishmael became an expert in archery.
Hagar never returned to the tribe. When the time came she arranged that her boy marry an Egyptian woman, not a Hebrew. He had many sons, who in turn founded many tribes that settled in all the area from Assyria to the northern border of Egypt. Hagar is seen as the foremother of the Arab nations.
The Bible text
The Birth of Ishmael (the Slave Girl’s story): Genesis 16
1 Now Sar’ai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar; 2 and Sar’ai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sar’ai. 3 So, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, Sar’ai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. 4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 And Sar’ai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my maid to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sar’ai, “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sar’ai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her. 7 The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, maid of Sar’ai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sar’ai.” 9 The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your descendants that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ish’mael; because the LORD has given heed to your affliction. 12 He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.” 13 So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “Thou art a God of seeing”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-la’hai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. 15 And Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ish’mael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ish’mael to Abram.
The Birth of Isaac: Genesis 21:1-7
1 The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away: Genesis 8-20
8 And the child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went, and sat down over against him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Let me not look upon the death of the child.” And as she sat over against him, the child lifted up his voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink. 20 And God was with the lad, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.