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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Cornelis van Poelenburch/The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath/c. 1630,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 18, 2024).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version

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Cornelis van Poelenburch was an important representative of the first generation of Dutch artists who drew inspiration from the landscape and culture of Italy. He is celebrated for his small-scale paintings of arcadian, biblical, or mythological subjects that featured figures in an Italianate landscape, often with Roman ruins. This work was painted in Utrecht, after the artist had spent nearly a decade in Italy, and although the landscape setting here is imaginary, the ruin on the left is based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum, built in 495 BC.

The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath illustrates the biblical story of the encounter between prophet Elijah and a widow and her son gathering sticks when he arrives at the town of Zarephath. Elijah asks her for a piece of bread, and the destitute widow invites him to her home where she uses her last bit of flour and oil to bake for him. The prophet then blesses the woman and her child, and assures them that their supplies of flour and oil will never be diminished. Shortly thereafter the son dies, but because of Elijah’s fervent prayers, God returned the boy to life. The story was often interpreted as an Old Testament prefiguration of the passion and sacrifice of Christ. The son, who clutches a bundle of firewood, pre-shadowed Christ carrying the cross, and because he was later brought back from the dead, he was seen as a prefiguration of the resurrected Christ.


The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath illustrates the passage in 1 Kings 17:8–24 that recounts how the Lord led the prophet Elijah to Zarephath, where he met a widow and her son gathering sticks.[1] Elijah asked the widow for some water and bread, and although she was destitute because of the draught that had plagued the land for more than three years, she used her last bit of flour and oil to cook for him. Elijah then blessed her and her child and assured them that their supplies of flour and oil would never be diminished. Shortly thereafter the widow's son died, and Elijah prayed that the Lord would return the child to life. The Lord heard Elijah's prayer and returned the boy's soul to his body. This Old Testament story was often interpreted as exemplifying the power of faith to achieve miracles. It also portends New Testament accounts of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The way the widow's son clutches a large bundle of sticks anticipates Christ’s carrying of the cross on the way to Golgotha, and because the boy was brought back from the dead, he was also seen as alluding to the resurrected Christ.[2] Significantly, when this painting appeared at auction in Paris in 1752, it was sold as a pendant to a painting by Poelenburch of Abraham and Isaac, another Old Testament story that was considered to embody the power of faith and to prefigure Christ’s death and resurrection.[3]

In Poelenburch’s painting the meeting of the prophet, shown wrapped in a red robe, and the widow, who kneels before him, occurs near the end of the day under cerulean blue skies. Light spreading across the parched and barren terrain illuminates their forms, as well as those of other, more distant travelers who pass through a landscape dotted with clusters of ancient ruins atop small hills or nestled against rock outcroppings. Although most of these structures are imaginary evocations of ruins Poelenburch had seen on his travels through the Roman campagna, the large shaded ruin in the foreground left, with its precariously balanced pediment, is based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux from the Roman Forum, a ruin that Poelenburch depicted often in his works.[4] He used these ruins to establish a sense of time and place, but he also carefully situated them for compositional effect. They not only help create scale and enhance spatial recession, but they also reinforce the narrative. By framing Elijah’s upper body within the circular vault of a distant ruin, for example, Poelenburch gave the prophet added visual prominence in the scene.

Poelenburch continued to paint biblical scenes in Italianate landscapes even after he returned to Utrecht in the mid-1620s, making it difficult to date his paintings. The restrained poses and gestures of the figures in this work, which reflect the influence of Raphael (Marchigian, 1483 - 1520), the blue and ocher tonalities, and the soft atmospheric effects in the distant landscape are all characteristic of Poelenburch’s paintings executed around 1630. The oak panel support is also typical of works he painted in Utrecht at that time. Moreover, the subject seems to have appealed to Dutch patrons. The closest pictorial prototype for Poelenburch’s interpretation of the story is a now-lost painting by Poelenburch’s teacher, Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1566 - 1651), known through a 1604 engraving by Jan Pietersz Saenredam (Dutch, 1565 - 1607), in which the widow is similarly shown kneeling and gathering sticks with her son [fig. 1].[5]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


Cottin collection; (his sale, by Pierre Remy and Sieur Helle, Paris, 27 November-22 December 1752, 1st day, no. 382);[1] purchased by Le Brun. (sale, Sotheby's, London, 21 February 1962, no. 66); (Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London); sold 29 May 1963 to Joseph F. McCrindle [1923-2008], New York;[2] gift 2004 to NGA.

Technical Summary

The support consists of a single-planked panel with horizontal grain. On the reverse, all four edges are beveled and tool marks are visible along the left edge. A thin, white ground covers the panel, but allows the wood grain to show through. Microscopic examination showed several incised diagonal lines in the ground, which may be compositional or perspective guides. The paint is smoothly and precisely applied in fine detail.

The painting is in very good condition. A wooden insert in the panel in the top left corner was probably added to replace an area damaged by insects. Short checks and small chips in the panel are found along the edges. The paint and ground bear some groupings of small losses that follow the wood grain in the foreground figures at lower right, in the clouds, and in the center of the sky. The painting was treated in 2006 to remove discolored varnish and inpainting.


Vogelaar, Christiaan, and Gregor J. M. Weber, eds. Rembrandt's Landscapes. Exh. cat. Staatliche Museen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel; Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. Leiden, 2006: 122–123, fig. 103.
Grasselli, Margaret M., and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., eds. The McCrindle Gift: A Distinguished Collection of Drawings and Watercolors. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2012: x (detail), 19, repro. 185.

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symbols and prefigurations
Roman Catholicism
landscape +Italianate
landscape with ruins
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