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The Story of Hagar

This YouTube video tells this story in 3 minutes.


The story of Hagar requires a chapter on its own. Through it we can examine virtually every facet of Rembrandt's activity as a draughtsman.

Rembrandt studied with Pieter Lastman in 1624. He made a drawing from Lastman's painting of The Dismissal of Hagar. Benesch has chosen to date this copy (Pl.32a) 1637 though Rembrandt's formal studies with Lastman had ended abruptly 10 years earlier. Irrespective of the copy's actual date, scholars surmise that this dry seed took root in Rembrandt's imagination and intermittently produced abundant fruits - one painting, one etching, and about two dozen drawings - all without further reference to the outside world.

If Rembrandt truly 'clung' to this story 'throughout his working life', then it is surprising how little the characterisation of the protagonists deviates from drawing to drawing. Ishmael appears in the drawings as a boy keen to get off to his camping adventure; throughout the series Hagar is tearful and offers passive resistance; Abraham seems very much the patriarch and expects to be obeyed. In some drawings he brushes aside resistance with a sweeping gesture; in others he seems resolute but reassuring and even benedictory. It is only in a few drawings that he appears to be brutally dismissive.

The consistency of costume and accoutrements in Pls. 33a,b,c is so striking that we must dispute the dates c.1640, 1652, c.1652 respectively as proposed by Benesch. The versions dated 1640 and 1652 are so similar that there seems little reason to doubt that they were both done from the same group of models and from the same position in the studio: in both drawings Hagar wipes her eyes with a kerchief in her right hand and in her left she holds a water bottle; under her left arm a kit bag. In both drawings she wears slippers, an ankle-length dress and a drape round her waist that Pl.33e reveals to be a hitched-up skirt. Over a long-sleeved shirt she wears a light jacket with cuffs at the elbow, and a shawl; on her head a loose head-dress. Her pose is consistent in both drawings, but in one of them her torso has slumped forward a little - the model for Hagar has become tired. I therefore accept that this drawing (pl.33b) comes after the '1640' drawing (Pl.33a) - by perhaps as much as thirty minutes as opposed to the twelve-year gap proposed by Benesch.

Pl.33c shows many of the same features reversed. The photograph in Pl.33d is of a maquette based on the drawing seen in Pl.33a. By now it should surprise us little to find that the reflection of the top half of the figures of Abraham and Hagar in my reconstruction tallies remarkably with the drawing in Pl.33c (this time there is a gap of sixteen years in the accepted dating of the two drawings). Rembrandt seems to have drawn the top halves of the figures from their image in his mirror. In this case the image is as one seen in a tilted mirror. When we remember that Rembrandt's mirror was probably mounted on an easel we can understand why the figures' reflection may have been cut off below the waist. Pls.33f and 33g are minor variants of this half-reflection.

Two further drawings can be linked with this same group by the placing of a large upright mirror to the right of the same maquette. Indeed the shape of the portal behind Abraham in Pl.33a might well be derived from the mirror frame and recess seen in Pls.25a and b and 21a and b. Again, Rembrandt does not need to have moved from his seat in the studio; he sat remarkably close to the group - as little as ten feet away - which makes his angle of vision approximately 140 degrees. For convenience I have made a second photograph, Pl.33h.

The reflection that we see in the second mirror in the right of Pl.33h shows Hagar as she appears in Pl.33j. I think that although Hagar is drawn from her reflection, Abraham is drawn from life. Ishmael has moved from his previous position in the tableau.

In Pl.33k Rembrandt appears to have used the same silhouette of both Abraham and Hagar as in the previous drawing, but Hagar has been turned to face us by the simple device of drawing her face on the back of her head (this could have been observed from life, see Pl.33d), but her hand is crabbed and insubstantial; which leads me to conclude that it is invented.

There are many student paintings of the same group, which suggests that these models were present in the studio for some considerable time. I find in the Hagar series of drawings less of a clear serial evolution than in the other families of subject drawings. I suspect that many of them were made simply to pass the time of day. They do, however, demonstrate the way in which Rembrandt was able to multiply the variations available in a nearly static situation.

The mirror images in Pls.33c and j, have resulted in drawing of inferior quality. I believe we must learn to match our expectations of any drawing to the physical circumstances from which it was produced. For Rembrandt the more 'real' the stimulus, the better the drawing.

I have suggested that the figure of Abraham in Pl.33k was based on a mirror image. To be precise, the high quality of this figure leads me to believe that his position only was observed in reflection and that the model was then re-posed to allow Rembrandt to observe the subtleties from life. (Comparison of this figure with that of the Host, in the drawing The Unworthy Wedding Guest, Pl.40a, reveals Abraham to be an almost precise replica of the host but seen from behind.)

Let us now compare this Abraham with Rembrandt's transcription of him (Pl.33n). Again it is the weak quality of the figure which points us to a source other than 'life'. But for the high standard of the rest of the drawing one might mistake it for the work of a student. Abraham stands more erect and his right arm is more to the front in this drawing than in Pl.33k; but they are close enough to believe that one was copied from the other and for the comparison to be instructive. In Pl.33k Abraham leans forward purposefully; the complicated pose of the figure is masterfully handled. The precision in scale and pose of the head, seen behind the stooped shoulders, is extremely impressive: the plane of the voluminous cloak under the right shoulder combines with the folds that go over the back and around the left buttock to create a splendidly patriarchal torso. Read it with the right foot alone and we have a quavering old man; add the left foot and Abraham moves off towards Sarah with the self-confidence of the righteous. The drawing is very subtly conceived and it is probably Rembrandt's most profound psychological comment on Abraham, the subtlest of the entire series. The subtlety of the observations is matched by the clarity of the means with which they are conveyed: each sweep of the pen knows precisely what it describes, whether it is the section of a swathe of turban as it disappears around the front of Abraham's head, or the diagonal fall of loose folds across a stooping back. The left foot is established by a mark which may not appear particularly beautiful or definitive; but it tells us precisely the direction in which the foot points, and exactly where the corner of the step lies beneath it. By that means the drawing conveys just how much weight Abraham has put upon it and thus gives the whole figure the arrogance that Rembrandt intends.

Pl.33n is drawn with a finer pen, something that might predispose us to expect a greater precision and subtlety. The marks with which the figure of Abraham are drawn are as fine as can be, but the relationships between the marks so imprecise that we can feel no particular figure or pose beneath the drapery. Abraham has raised his foot for no discernible reason. With the exception of the relation of head to hand, which is sharp and admonitory, the figure displays all the feebleness of Rembrandt copying his own work.

The comparison brings to light the need to read Rembrandt as a whole. I hope that the distinctions I have drawn are clear and compelling as a guide to the quality of the works, even if the question of how those works may have been achieved remains open.

The story of Hagar presents us with another paradox. Rembrandt carefully prepares himself and then paints a picture which has only the loosest affinities with any of the preceding drawings. In the painting Rembrandt softens the patriarch's harshness by making him provide Hagar with a donkey. The fresh approach after over twenty different experiments is characteristic. Rembrandt did not enjoy repetition.

Next Chapter: Chapter Seven