The story of Rebecca at the well comes from Genesis 24:11–22. The aged Abraham, wanting a wife for his son Isaac, sent his senior steward (usually identified as the Eliezer of Damascus mentioned in Genesis 15:2) to his homeland of Mesopotamia to find a suitable woman. Tired after his long journey, the steward stopped at a well outside the city of Nahor and prayed for guidance. Rebecca came out of the city to draw water from the well, and when she offered it to the old man and his camels, he recognized her as the appointed bride and presented her with the betrothal jewels of a gold earring and two bracelets. In Veronese’s depiction, the jewels are offered by a kneeling servant, while the city of Nahor is represented in the right background.
First recorded in 1613, in the posthumous inventory of Charles de Croy, 4th Duke of Arschot, at the Château de Beaufort in the Spanish Netherlands, the picture once formed part of a series of ten paintings by Veronese and/or his workshop, five of which show scenes from the Old Testament and five from the New. Of the other nine, seven are now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Hagar and the Angel, Esther before Ahasuerus, The Flight of Lot, Susanna and the Elders, Christ and the Samaritan Woman [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Veronese and Workshop, Christ and the Samaritan Woman, c. 1585, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. © KHM-Museumsverband, Christ and the Adulteress, Christ and the Centurion); one is in the Castle Museum, Prague (Adoration of the Shepherds); and one (The Flight into Egypt—or more probably, a Rest on the Flight) is lost. An eleventh canvas, The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet, also in Prague, is sometimes, but inconclusively, associated with the series.
As well as being complementary in their subject matter, the ten canvases are nearly identical in size and shape and were clearly commissioned as a cycle for a particular building; on the evidence of style, scholars are agreed that they date from the 1580s, the last decade of the painter’s life. The identity of the patron, however, remains a mystery; furthermore, it is far from clear whether the series was originally destined for a secular building—some princely residence or private palace—or for a church or convent. Sergio Marinelli preferred the secular option and even raised the possibility that the series was commissioned for a royal palace, such as the Escorial. Friderike Klauner, by contrast, identified the site as some religious building in Venice; and this view is made more plausible by the demonstration by Hans Aurenhammer that another series of canvases by Veronese and his workshop with subjects drawn from the Old and New Testaments was originally painted for the sacristy of the Servite conventual church of San Giacomo della Giudecca. In this connection it may be noted that the protagonists of the majority (but not quite all) of the canvases are women, in a way that would have been appropriate for a nunnery. Yet whatever the original destination, the paintings cannot have remained in place for long—indeed, for some reason they may never have been installed—since they had already reached the Netherlands within two decades of Veronese’s death. In any case, as suggested by Beverly Brown, they may well have already been for sale in Venice in 1588 and been bought by Arschot, and although she was mistaken in supposing that the 4th Duke was ever in the city, it remains perfectly possible that the paintings were acquired by his father, Philippe, 3rd Duke, who briefly visited in 1588, and who died there in 1595, on his return from a pilgrimage to Loreto. Another possibility, raised by Klara Garas, is that the canvases are arguably identical with a group of pictures by Veronese that was unsuccessfully offered in 1606 to the German prince Ernst von Schaumburg by the painters Josef Heintz and Hans Rottenhammer. In this case, the paintings would have remained either in their original destination or unsold between Veronese’s death in 1588 and 1606, and the 4th Duke of Arschot would have acquired them between this date and his death in 1612, perhaps through the same intermediaries.
In the absence of certain information about the original destination of the series, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions regarding the choice of subjects. As noted by Brown, some of the Old and New Testament scenes can be arranged in typologically matching pairs, and the Gallery’s picture finds a natural pendant in the Christ and the Samaritan Woman, in which the scene is likewise set beside a well, from which a beautiful young woman draws water and gives it to her unknown guest to drink. Just as in the Old Testament scene Abraham’s steward recognizes Rebecca by this act as the wife promised to Isaac by God, so in the corresponding New Testament scene (John 4:6–42), the Samaritan woman—at a well founded by Rebecca’s son Jacob—recognizes Christ as the Messiah. Since both scenes are lit from the left, it might further be inferred that they were intended to hang beside one another in their original setting. Yet most of the other subjects cannot be paired off in this way, and as noted above, while a majority of them has a female protagonist, in a way that might be interpreted as appropriate as a positive or negative model for a community of nuns, a subject such as Christ and the Centurion would have no place in such a scheme. Brown also noted that most of the canvases repeat subjects, poses, and compositions previously used by Veronese, and in the end it may be that the choice of subjects was determined as much by practical convenience as by any strict iconological program.
Although some scholars, including Alessandro Ballarin, Remigio Marini, and Rodolfo Pallucchini, have regarded the series as autograph, or substantially autograph, works by Veronese, there exists a long tradition for judging them to be products of the master’s workshop: Franz Wickhoff, for example, gave them to Veronese’s close follower Francesco Montemezzano (1555–c. 1602). Any assessment of the quality of the Gallery’s picture is complicated by its present badly abraded condition and its many inexpert retouchings. Yet it is clear that the execution of the landscape and vegetation must always have been perfunctory, with even the yellow drapery on the foreground servant poorly handled, and Brown was certainly correct to insist that the Rebecca is not as refined as Veronese at his best. Brown suggested that the figure of Rebecca follows, in reverse, a design used for her counterpart in another version of the subject, in the collection of the Earl of Yarborough. This picture, however, is of even weaker quality, so the relationship of the two compositions to each other, to a third version of the subject (Château de Versailles), and to an autograph preparatory drawing showing figures and camels (private collection, England) remains to be clarified. The reuse of existing designs might also explain why the figure of Rebecca appears somewhat small in relation to the male figures, and why, as observed by Kurt Badt, the psychological and dramatic potential of the story is not properly realized.
March 21, 2019