The painting represents the culminating episode in the adventures of Hagar, the Egyptian concubine of the patriarch Abraham (Genesis 51: 15–19). Following her expulsion by Abraham, Hagar wandered in the wilderness with Ishmael, her son. They were in danger of dying for lack of water when an angel appeared and directed Hagar to a spring.
The Old Testament chronicle becomes a kind of Easter story in Sacchi’s telling: Hagar’s fervent prayers at the side of Ishmael, supine on a white linen with his arms outstretched, are joyfully interrupted by the angel who points with both hands towards the life-giving water only a few steps away. The darkness and desolation behind the boy gives way, on the angel’s side, to warm, redolent air and soft green foliage. Faithful Hagar, blessed although she is a pagan, is thus portrayed as a Genesis antecedent of the Samaritan woman to whom Christ said at the well, “whoever drinks of this water shall thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give shall never thirst” (John 4:26).
This Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness is an especially beautiful treatment of one of Andrea Sacchi’s most successful compositions. A slow worker and cerebral intellect, Sacchi sometimes carried his didacticism to extremes. This painting of around 1630 preserves the freshness of his early style, when he was in the forefront of a revival of the fluid brushwork and atmospheric effects of the Venetian Renaissance.
John T. Spike