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Hagar in the Desert

Hagar, as told in Genesis, Chapter 21, was an Egyptian slave to Abraham with whom she had a son, Ishmael. Abraham's wife became jealous and asked her husband to banish them to the desert. Sent away with only small rations of food and water, Hagar and Ishmael were miraculously saved from dying of thirst by an angel.

In this painting, Rubens appears to have only depicted the figure of Hagar. According to an engraving by Frans De Roy dated to around 1750, the painting once included an angel in the sky with the infant Ishmael at the bottom of the tree on the left. At some stage in the painting's history these were overpainted; only a faint outline of the angel's hand and wing are now visible in the sky. It is likely that the painting was also cut down as the engraving depicts a greater expanse of sky and a taller tree, which are no longer there.

These alterations may have been made to make the painting seem more like a portrait. The model is believed to be Helena Forment, Rubens' second wife. Her hairstyle and dress is typical of the fashion in Flanders in the 1630s, making this painting an ambiguous play between portrait and biblical story.

Currently on display

Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Gallery 4
72.6 x 73.2 cm
Oil on panel
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number