Gabriel Metsu: 1629-1667
April 10-July 24, 2011
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
4th and Constitution Avenue, NW
Hagar and Ishmael, as imagined by the 17th century Dutch Catholic painter Gabriel Metsu, are literally in the doghouse.
As Abraham ejects Hagar and Ishmael from his home – while someone wishes the duo good riddance as she or he leans out the upstairs window – two dogs occupy the foreground of the painting.
Dogs are typically signs of loyalty in northern Renaissance art, but the two dogs in Metsu’s painting, which is part of an exhibit organized by the National Gallery of Ireland, the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery of Art (D.C.), seem to convey the opposite of loyalty.
Just as the dogs’ master is turning out his handmaiden-turned-wife and their son, one dog shows his rear end and his tail to viewers, as he disappears into the shadows of a doghouse in the bottom left corner of the painting.
The other dog, which emerges from the darkness of the doorway of the home into the light, expresses an interest in a slingshot-shaped bone, perhaps a wishbone or so-called merrythought bone.
Although the ruddy Ishmael – barefoot and dressed in an open tunic – is all innocence, as he nervously toys with his golden curls, Hagar stands her ground powerfully. Judging from the muscles on her left arm, Hagar has not only been drawn based on a male model, but “she” could probably pummel Abraham if she felt like it.
Per Genesis 21:14, Abraham provided Hagar and Ishmael with a loaf of bread and a jug or sack of water. Perhaps that jug is what Metsu has depicted slung over Hagar’s shoulder, but even if Hagar has been given some supplies, they are very basic.
The puddle behind the doghouse and the river winding its way into the background (beneath an overgrown bridge and ruins of a castle, surely spelling destruction and the passage of time) are a tease. Where Hagar and Ishmael are headed is a desert, in which, when the water supply dwindles, Hagar will leave a feverish Ishmael for dead underneath a shrubbery. It will take an angel’s intervention to save mother and child.
Abraham, meanwhile, is adamant as he orders Hagar and Ishmael out of the house. His feet firmly planted on the doorstep – which supports not only the patriarch, but also Metsu’s signature – Abraham’s left index finger shows Hagar just what direction she can take her son, whom Sarah accused of “playing” (many commentators say trying to kill) with her son Isaac.
Much ambiguity surrounds the figure leaning out the window. The sturdy, brown-haired figure could be Isaac waving good-bye in earnest to his half-brother, whom he will miss greatly. If the figure is Isaac, it could also represent Metsu’s invention of an extra-biblical scene: Isaac mocking Hagar and Ishmael on their way into exile.
This somewhat diabolical interpretation of Metsu’s — there is no indication in Genesis that Sarah or Isaac were spiteful — is laden with irony as well. Sarah has called upon Abraham to dismiss Ishmael for mocking her son (or a variety of other offenses offered by the commentators), only to have Isaac (in Metsu’s world) mock Ishmael right back and kick him while he is down. However, the figure could be Sarah, whom we can assume is thrilled to see Hagar and Ishmael sent packing.
The Abraham of the bible was so unsure about what to do that God had to intervene (“All that Sarah, your wife, tells you, listen surely to her voice! For through Isaac shall your seed make a name for yourself”). Per Genesis 21:11, the notion of chasing Hagar and Ishmael away “was very evil in Abraham’s eyes.” But Metsu’s Abraham has no doubts. Though Hagar looks back at Abraham, Abraham’s eyes don’t seem to meet Hagar’s.
Abraham’s attention appears to be on the heavens and the increasingly foreboding storm developing in the top left corner of the canvas. Abraham’s line of sight passes through the Isaac or Sarah figure, and one wonders if Abraham and Sarah have created the storm that has cast a shadow over the landscape, but will bring no rain when Hagar and Ishmael will need it most.
At the press viewing of the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque painting, called a colleague’s and my attention to the doorways, or portals, in Metsu’s works. In The Dismissal of Hagar – and here it’s worth noting that the biblical word used in Genesis 12 is garaysh, which implies actively chasing away rather than a more passive dismissal – the doorway framing Abraham’s body is pitch black.
In some senses, Abraham has come out of nowhere to dismiss Hagar, and either Sarah or Isaac is probably lurking in that dark abyss. The same can be said of the dog walking into the doghouse, which is equally dark, with the exception of Hagar’s bright red dress – conveying sin or blood, perhaps? – the rest of Metsu’s palette consists of medium, earthy tones.
Hagar wears a similarly colored dress in Jan Victors’ work on the same subject dated about 1635. In Victors’ painting both Sarah and Isaac are visible, and though both of them smile, Abraham is much more tentative and sympathetic. Another mysterious figure (perhaps Eliezer?) appears on the horizon off to the right.
In Pieter Pietersz Lastman’s 1612 scene, both Hagar and Abraham wear red, and Sarah and Isaac look on from a distance. Lastman’s Abraham gently puts his hand on Ishmael’s head as he looks at Hagar. It would seem that Metsu departed from artistic precedent by depicting a firm and unsympathetic Abraham.
In The Dismissal of Hagar, Metsu has complicated the scene in many different ways. The dogs and the dark skies foreshadow, the river and the puddle (and perhaps the figure in the window) taunt and the palette accuses. The dark doorways offer Hagar, Ishmael and the viewer no entry point into the safety and comfort of the house – nothing to grab onto visually. Ishmael looks confused; Abraham resolute; and Hagar cold.
But most fascinatingly, Metsu has carefully balanced the visual elements so cleverly that it is tough for viewers to point fingers as confidently as Abraham does. We know how this story ends, but somehow Metsu has managed to cloud it in mystery.
Image (and three details): Gabriel Metsu. The Dismissal of Hagar, c. 1653-1654. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 112 x 86 cm (44 1/8 x 33 7/8 in.). Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, acquired with the generous support of the Vereniging Rembrandt.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.