Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness

Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness
Emanuel Krescenc Liška (1852–1903)
Oil on canvas, 1898
Gift of Sayd Frances Solow, 1956. Restored with funds provided by the J. S. Bridwell Foundation, 2019.

Accounts of Hagar’s flight into the desert with her son Ishmael are threaded into Islamic, Jewish, and Christian patriarchal traditions. Although details in the storyline and the intentions of characters at some points vary, the underlying narrative expresses collective issues of faltering faith, providence, and the divine orchestration of peoples. Slow to bear an heir for Abraham, Sarah offered to him her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, who soon conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. Years later, in fulfillment of a pledge, God caused Sarah also to conceive. Isaac was born, along with the dilemma of which son should succeed Abraham. Whether carrying out instructions from God or Sarah, Abraham provided Hagar and Ishmael with water and bread or dates and sent them into a wasteland to wander.

This grand-scale painting by Czech artist Emanuel Liška depicts the moment in which Hagar called out to God in supplication, the dry water gourd cast aside and Ishmael near death. The story in Genesis concludes with an angel delivering God’s promise that Ishmael would survive to lead a great nation, and Hagar’s subsequent discovery of a well. In Islamic literature the events inspire the discipline of pilgrimage as the well and the two hills climbed by Hagar in search of help mark the site that would be Mecca. Hagar assumes the role of matriarch in that tradition and Ishmael is revered as a prophet who with his father built the Kaaba.

Liška, orphaned in Prague at the age of nine, supported himself into maturity by teaching art and tutoring. He enrolled at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts at seventeen completing a four-year program of study in 1873. Six years later he won the commission with his Bohemian contemporary Jakub Schikaneder to create designs for the Royal Box of the Czech National Theater, and in 1880 received the city contract to paint a replacement for the calendarium plate depicting the turn of seasons in twelve agrarian scenes below the renowned astronomical clock on the Prague town hall. Earnings from those commissions enabled him to travel to Munich to begin advanced studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, placing Liška among the artists associated with the Munich School of painting known for naturalism and dramatic lighting. Liška’s mural Crucifixion, painted in the Chapel of St. Raphael, Klar Institute in Prague, resulted in a grant that funded a two-year stay in Italy. Paintings completed by Liška in Italy were exhibited at the 1891 world’s fair in Prague. Noteworthy achievements notwithstanding the sale of Liška’s oil paintings, typically emotional and luminous, often indulging a heroic loneliness, was never truly successful during his lifetime. From 1888 until his death he taught in Prague at the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design, where his early collaborator Jakub Schikaneder was on faculty.

The articulated impasto foreground, foreboding sky, and horizontal inclination of figures in this painting recall an earlier work by Liška, Cain, painted in Munich in 1885 and now in the collection of the National Gallery Prague. Two years earlier, Liška painted Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert, an almost identical precursor to the Bridwell painting. Now in the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen the 1883 work has earned iconic acclaim, having served as a model for several book illustrations, a political cartoon featuring Theodore Roosevelt, and hand-painted porcelain plaques produced by Konigliche Porzellan Manufacktur.

Prague town hall clock

Liška’s Cain

Painting in the Gallery of West Bohemia 

Second Floor Corridor
Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness