Overview

The Old Testament is filled with poignant stories of the often harsh and cruel world of ancient Israel, where, despite human frailties and personal betrayals, a nation was formed through spiritual faith, military valor, and the forgiveness and reconciliation of bitter antagonists. Rubens, perhaps more than any other artist, understood the forcefulness of these narratives and captured their powerful emotional impact in his expressive images.

The story of David and Abigail is about reconciliation, a quality Rubens suggestively conveyed with the gentle forward movements of the two distinctive figural groups that have joined in this peaceful landscape setting. As Abigail kneels before David and offers him the gift of bread, this military leader, touched by her eloquence and humility, tenderly reaches toward her to help her rise. Rubens indicated through gaze and gesture that Abigail's sincere supplication and comely features have successfully persuaded David to forgo his intended attack against her husband.

The narrative, which is recounted in 1 Samuel (25:2-42), describes an episode that occurred during David's exile in the wilderness in southern Judah. David, in need of provisions, sent some of his men to request aid from a wealthy sheep farmer named Nabal, whose herd David had allowed to graze unmolested all winter. The sheep farmer curtly refused their requests. Infuriated, David set out with four hundred armed men to seek revenge.

Abigail, having learned of David's impending attack, quickly packed generous provisions--including bread, wine, meat, and fruit--on the backs of asses, and set out to intercept David and his soldiers. There she pleaded with him to forgo his revenge, reminding David that he was fighting the Lord's battles and that he should not allow evil to enter into his life. After her successful mission, Abigail returned home and told her husband the following morning what she had done. Her joyous news caused her husband's heart to die "within him, and he became as a stone." Upon hearing of Nabal's death, David, rejoicing that God had acted to support his cause, sent servants to ask Abigail to marry him.

Rubens painted this luminous oil sketch, which may have served as a model for a tapestry, in the early 1630s, shortly after he had returned to Antwerp upon the conclusion of his diplomatic ventures in Spain and England. The fluid brushwork and flickering highlights that both model and accent forms, the deeply resonant colors, and the broad, atmospheric handling of the landscape all reflect Rubens' appreciation of Titian's and Veronese's artistic achievements--an appreciation rekindled in Madrid and London in the late 1620s when he had renewed his study of these Venetian masters.

The reasons Rubens chose this story after returning to Antwerp in March 1630 are not known. The emotional rapport between David and Abigail that Rubens so sensitively conveys may have appealed to him at this stage of his life. After all, in 1630 Rubens had fallen in love with and married Helena Fourment, who, like Abigail, brought nourishment and encouraged a peaceful existence. However, the pronounced compositional similarities between The Meeting of David and Abigail and The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (c. 1624, National Gallery of Art), in which an Old Testament hero and his soldiers are offered bread and wine by the priest of Salem and his entourage, suggest that typological associations may also have underlain Rubens' decision to paint this work. Just as the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek was understood to be a prefiguration of the Eucharist, so was Abigail seen as a prefiguration of the Virgin in her role as intercessor.

(Text by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)

Inscription

lower right: 2[3 or 5?]9

Marks and Labels

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Provenance

Andrzej Wierzbicki, Warsaw, 1935. (M. Knoedler & Co., New York), by 1957; private collection, United States; purchased c. 1963 by Dr. and Mrs. Rudolf J. Heinemann, New York;[1] by inheritance 1975 to Lore [Mrs. Rudolf J.] Heinemann [d. 1996], New York; her estate; bequest 1997 to NGA.

Exhibition History

2000
Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.

Bibliography

1953
Jaffé, Michael. "Rubens' Sketching in Paint." Art News 52 (May 1953): 36, 64, repro.
1964
Die Sammlung Heule. Aus dem grossen Jahrhundert der niederländischen Malerei. Exh. cat. Wallraf-Richartz Museum. Cologne, 1964: unpaginated, under no. 31.
1972
Jaffé, Michael. "Rubens's 'David and Abigail.'" The Burlington Magazine 114 (December 1972: 863, repro.
1980
Held, Julius S. The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens. A Critical Catalogue. 2 vols. Princeton, 1980: 1:435-436, no. 315; 2:repro.
1989
d'Hulst, Roger A., and M. Vandenven. Rubens: The Old Testament (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part 3). London, 1989: 134-136, no. 41a, repro.
1992
Mai, Ekkehard, and Hans Vlieghe, eds. Von Bruegel bis Rubens: Das goldene Jahrhundert der flämischen Malerei. Exh. cat. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Cologne, 1992: 594, under no. 184.1.
2005
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 206-210, color repro.

Conservation Notes

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