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Hagar in the Desert

Hagar is depicted sitting on a rock in the desert, alone and clasping her hands, with an empty water flagon at her feet. This painting is based on the first episode of Hagar’s story (Genesis 16), found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. Hagar was the enslaved Egyptian servant to Sarah, wife of Abraham. Unable to conceive, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham so they might have a son and heir. When Hagar became pregnant, she was mistreated by Sarah, and fled into the desert, where we find her in this painting. Hagar is shown wearing a contemporary seventeenth-century outfit with a skirt of voluminous shimmering satin folds and a cropped jacket. Her hair is styled with a short fringe and curly bouffants at either side of her head; all were typical of the fashion in Flanders (present-day Belgium) during the 1630s when this painting was executed. The result is a mix of biblical figure and portrait. 

This painting dates to the period during which the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) married his second wife, Helena Fourment (1614-73), in 1630. After their marriage, Helena was often her husband’s muse, and most probably the model for Hagar in this painting. An early inventory of paintings at Dulwich Picture Gallery dating to 1813 lists this painting as ‘one of Rubens’ wives: as Hagar’. Born around the same time as this painting, was the first of their five children together, Clara Johanna (1632-89). The expectant Helena most likely provided the perfect model for the pregnant Hagar and her unborn son, and the roundness of the model’s belly is evident. An oil sketch, dated 1632-33, and now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, shows Helena in similar pose and outfit, but holding the baby Clara Johanna on her lap.  

Currently on display

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