Rispah, the daughter of Aiah. 1864. Oil on canvas, 427/8 x 26 inches (109 x 66 cm). Private collection. Click on image to enlarge it.

The story of Rispah [Rizpah] is taken from the second Book of Samuel, Chapter 21, verses 8-11. Rispah was one of the concubines of King Saul, and the mother of two sons by him, Armoni and Mephibosheth. She was the daughter of Aiah, a Hivite. After Saul’s death King David became the ruler of the Kingdom of Israel. In the earlier half of David’s reign a grievous famine struck Israel that lasted for three years. God revealed that the famine was sent because of Saul persecuting and then slaughtering the Gibeonites. David inquired of the Gibeonites what restitution they would demand in compensation for this wrong. The Gibeonites demanded the death of seven of Saul’s sons. David therefore delivered up to them the two sons of Rispah and five of the sons of Merab, Saul’s eldest daughter. The Gibeonites then killed them and hung up their bodies before the Lord at the sanctuary at Gibeah. Rispah stayed on the rock of Gibeah for five months standing guard over the suspended bodies of her sons to prevent them from being devoured by scavengers. After the rains came signalling the end of the famine the bodies were at length taken down by King David. They were buried in the family grave at Zelah, with the remains of Saul and his son Jonathan, thus assuaging the feelings of Rispah and the house of Saul.

Stanhope’s painting shows a raven-haired Rispah from the back watching over her murdered sons. She holds a torch in her right hand to scare off crows, vultures, and other birds of prey to prevent them from desecrating her sons’ bodies that had been left to rot. The picture shows Stanhope’s admiration for Venetian High Renaissance painting in his use of rich colour. Stanhope includes Lebanese cedars into his composition to evoke a biblical setting. The serpentine band coiled around Rispah’s left arm may allude to David’s treachery in giving in to the Gibeonites’ demands. The broken branch of the tree situated near Rispah’s waist may be symbolic of the pain she is feeling. Her pose near the tree may allude to the crucifixion of her sons, which are not shown unlike Frederic Leighton’s version of this subject that he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1893. Stanhope had previously used the decorative pattern of trees against a white sky in his The Flight into Egypt, although not nearly as effectively as here, which helps add to the funereal effect.

The Painting’s Reception

Rispah was extensively reviewed, not altogether favourably, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864. The Art Journal stated: “a figure of ‘Rispah’ (33) by R. S. Stanhope, a work mediaeval by its severity, and naturalistic through its vigour…Mr. Stanhope belonging to an opposite school, by forms ungainly assaults the intellect with claim to originality” (160). F. G. Stephens in The Athenaeum was the one reviewer most complimentary about this work: “Mr. R. S. Stanhope may be styled the youngest in the list of artists who establish themselves this year. His Rispah (No. 33) is a very expressive and poetical representation of the well-known theme of the daughter of Aiah watching the bodies of her sons and those of the sons of Michal, the daughter of Saul” (682). The critic of The Saturday Review complained about the pictures “mediaevalism”:

Messrs. Stanhope, Halliday and Sandys all appear devoted, at present, to that modernized mediaevalism in which Mr. E. B. Jones of the Water-colour Society is a professed master. We trust that this fancy will not long hamper their capacities for a more natural style. We can only admire the technical qualities of the female figures by the latter two. In Mr. Stanhope’s ‘Rizpah,’ the idea is original and picturesque. This is a subject which, we would suggest, might be advantageously worked out again by the painter. Greater force in the widow’s features, and more roundness in her figure, would relieve the composition of a certain embarrassment which the confused though effective lines of the background now appear to occasion. [657]

The Illustrated London News was more impressed with the painting’s composition: “The picture by the same artist [Stanhope] of ‘Rispah’, watching at twilight, behind the black trunks of a clump of cedars, the bodies of her sons and those of the sons of Michal, is impressively conceived and far more legitimate in its effects” (494). The reviewer for The Spectator found: “Mr. Stanhope’s ‘Rizpah’ (33) is finely imagined, though the picture is deficient in rendering space” (711).

Alfred Tennyson later wrote a poem entitled “Rizpah” in 1878 that was published in his Ballads and Other Poems in 1880.


“Fine Arts. Exhibition of the Royal Academy.” The Illustrated London News 44 (May 21, 1864): 494.

“The Royal Academy.” The Art Journal New Series 3 (June 1, 1864): 157-68.

“The Royal Academy.” The Spectator 37 (June 18, 1864): 711.

“The Royal Academy of 1864.” The Saturday Review 17 (May 28, 1864: 657-58.

Stephens, Frederic George. “Fine Arts. Royal Academy.” The Athenaeum No. 1907 (May 14, 1864): 682-84.

Taylor, Tom. “The Royal Academy.” The Times (May 5, 1864): 8.

Trippi, Peter B. “John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope. The Early Years of a Second Generation Pre-Raphaelite 1858-73.” M.A. Thesis. Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1993.

Last modified 8 May 2022