Hagar. 1881, by Sir Hubert Herkomer (1849-1914). Pastel on paper laid on panel, 22.25 x 30.1 inches. Initialled and dated 1892. Source: The Maas Gallery. Exhibited: Royal Watercolour Society, 1893; Internationale Ausstellung des Vereins, Munchens Secession, 1893, no. 846. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by the Maas Gallery

Herkomer set the scene on a dry, dusty road in late summer. The colouring is deliberately brown and sombre. The leaves are turning; autumn is round the corner, and possibly a hard winter. The mother and child have walked who knows how far, carrying very little in the way of belongings. Exhausted, the child has given up on an uphill stretch of road. The mother looks ahead resolutely - she will not turn back. Their situation appears desperate - only the evident determination of the mother offers hope. Herkomer remembered his own childhood: ‘We had an anxious time of it when I was a boy. We were constantly in want of money...’. Early in his career in England he produced illustrations for The Graphic magazine, which often carried poignant images of the poor and of outcasts.

At the Royal Watercolour Society’s Exhibition where it was shown in 1893, this picture would have been understood on more than one level. First, it was clear from the title that it is a reworking of the story in Genesis: Abraham’s wife Sarah appeared to be barren, so she offered him her slave Hagar to bed, and Hagar then conceived a son, Ishmael. When Ishmael had grown to boyhood, Sarah at last conceived her own son to Abraham - this was Isaac, who became Abraham’s heir. The disinherited Ishmael mocked his half-brother, so Isaac’s furious mother Sarah forced Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out. Ishmael has been hailed as the father of the Arab race, and Isaac the father of the Jews, with this event in their childhood as the start of all the trouble between them (the Qu’ran has Ishmael as the rightful heir to Abraham, not Isaac).

Hard Times. Click on image to enlarge it.

The painting would also have been understood as a hard-hitting comment on the morals of a society that could allow a mother and a young boy to be thrown out, perhaps because the husband had found a younger, prettier wife, or perhaps because the child was illegitimate - or, just as likely in 1892, because the husband was dying, falling ill or losing his job. In the 1890s Britain’s rural communities were badly hit by the dramatic fall in the the grain price, caused by a flood of cheap imported grain from America, and a series of bad harvests. Itinerant farm-workers looking for employment, sometimes accompanied by their families, became a common sight on the roads of Britain, and around Bushey in Hertfordshire where Herkomer lived. He painted his first ‘social realist’ picture in 1885, his famous Hard Times, a similar subject in which a poor labourer rests as his wife sits exhausted by the side of the road with one son on her lap and the other resting on her. The wife in that picture, the same model as for Hagar in this, was Annie Quarry, a labourer’s wife who had two sons, the younger of which would have been of the right age for the boy in our picture. In Hard Times, the wife is a type of dejection and exhaustion, but in this picture, Hagar is cast as a pillar of strength and defiance.

The presumably male, and slightly disconcerted, critic of The Era (29 April 1893) reviewed the picture:

‘She is a poor woman - a woman of strong and passionate nature, who has been driven from her lonely home by some domestic tyrant, who has possibly found a more attractive mate. The Hagar of this picture is weary and footsore, but still defiant. The tired boy at her side, who has tramped with her in search of “fresh fields and pastures new”, knows little of her mental trouble. Clutching the skirts of her ragged dress, he sinks upon the bank besides his desolate mother, and falls peacefully asleep. But there is no sleep for her. She looks fiercely ahead as if thinking of some possible refuge - some friends of the past miles away, where she may find help in sympathy. But in her heart, as in her face, there lives the sense of man’s injustice and treachery. The traces of beauty, of a bold and scornful type, are still to be seen on the features but the prevailing expression is one of deep hatred. If this woman had the opportunity she would wreak her vengeance on those who have turned her adrift upon the world’.

The presumably female author of ‘Our Ladies’ Column’ in the Leicester Chronicle (the same day in 1893) felt Hagar’s sorrow, but did not note any vengefulness: “As I looked at this picture I felt that the artist, when he painted it, had more in his mind than a mere conception of the biblical Hagar and Ishmael, and that these figures do but represent many an outcast of more recent times, whose sad stories this reminder of the sorrows of the original Hagar must recall to all our thoughts.”

After it was exhibited in London, this picture was shown at the first International Art Exhibition of the Munich Secession (the first in a series of ‘Secessions’ by modern artists from traditional art societies in Germany and Austria). Herkomer was born in Bavaria, and kept a residence there (in Landsberg am Lech, now a Herkomer Museum). =

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Created 10 February 2015