Elijah and the Widow's Son. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). 1868; retouched 1869. Watercolour and body colour. 94 cm x 61.2 cm. Source: Ford, facing p.202. Commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print document. Click on the image for a larger picture.]

Ford Madox Brown's grandson and biographer Ford Madox Ford includes this among the works of Brown's "third period," when he was much influenced by his 1863 commission to illustrate the Brother Dalziel's Bible (see Treuherz 214). He evolved a particular approach for this work, similar to that used in his stained glass cartoons, "definitely intended to have a certain style, or 'look.'" The pictures "were meant to exhibit strength and beauty of line and effectiveness of composition, and at the same time to be slightly archaic in appearance — in fact, to be diametrically opposed in style to pictures like Work" (418). As for the subject itself, Brown himself wrote of the "Finished study for [this] picture" in 1864:

We all remember how the widow in the extremity of her grief cried out, '"Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" So we can all imagine the half (or half-assumed) reproachful look with which Elijah, as he brought the child down stairs, would have said, "See, thy son liveth," and even surmise the faint twinkle of humour in the eyes with which he would receive the reply, "Now by this I know that thou art a man of God." The child is represented as in his grave-clothes, which have a far-off resemblance to Egyptian funereal trappings, having been laid out with flowers in the palms of his hands, as is done by women in such cases. Without this the subject (the coming to life) could not be expressed by the painter's art, and till this view of the subject presented itself to me I could not see my way to make a picture of it. The shadow on the wall projected by a bird out of the picture returning to its nest (consisting of the bottle which in some countries is inserted in the walls to secure the presence of the swallow of good omen), typifies the return of the soul to the body. The Hebrew writing over the door consists of the verses of Deut. vi. 4-9, which the Jews were ordered so to use (possibly suggested to Moses by the Egyptian custom). Probably their dwelling in tents gave rise to the habit of writing the words instead on parchment placed in a case. As is habitual with very poor people, the widow is supposed to have resumed her household duties, little expecting the result of the Prophet's vigil with her dead child. She has therefore been kneading a cake for his dinner. The costume is such as can be devised from the study of Egyptian combined with Assyrian, and other nearly contemporary remains. The effect is vertical sunlight, such as exists in southern latitudes. (qtd. in Ford 201-2)

Elijah's loose, flowing, fringed garment is a brick-red colour glinting with a woven thread, while the woman wears shades of rust and ochre, and the boy's binding-tape is also a rich orange. Julian Treuherz describes the whole picture as "a tour de force of watercolour technique, in which Brown skilfully depicted the patterns and textures of the Middle Eastern textiles and the brilliant colours in the hot sunshine" (214). Homely and even humorous details, like the garlic hanging from the doorway and the hen with its chick hitching a ride on its back, ensure that the miracle is naturalized in the everyday world. This is not a new trick: such "drolleries" can be found in medieval illuminated manuscripts, with which Brown and his Pre-Raphaelite friends would have been familiar (see Bendiner 40); but it might have taken courage to include them in such serious pictures as these, and it might seem more acceptable (indeed, entertaining) now than it was for the Victorians.

Related Material


Bendiner, Kenneth. "Ford Madox Brown's Humour." Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer, by Julian Treuherz, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. London: Philip Wilson, 2011. 37-45. Print.

Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 4 May 2012.

Treuherz, Julian, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011. Print.

Last modified 4 May 2012