The subject of this painting is taken from the Old Testament book of Judges. After the Levite had married a woman of inferior status from Bethlehem, they quarreled and the concubine left him and returned to her father’s house. The Levite soon followed and retrieved her. On their journey home, they unsuccessfully searched the town of Gibeah for a place to sleep until finally a field laborer offered the couple lodging in his house. This is the moment depicted by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, who painted at least three versions of this scene.
Later that evening, according to the biblical account, a few men surrounded the laborer’s house threatening to harm the Levite. To placate the aggressors, the host instead offered them his own daughter and the concubine. In the end, only the concubine was pushed out the door and, after being raped repeatedly, she died of her injuries on the laborer’s doorstep. The next day, the Levite left Gibeah with the dead woman’s body strapped onto his donkey. Once home, the Levite cut the corpse into twelve pieces and sent one piece to each tribe of Israel, triggering a horrendous cycle of revenge killings. Despite the horrible aftermath of the laborer’s initial act of hospitality, Van den Eeckhout chose to focus on the moment when the laborer, acting as a Good Samaritan, invited the travelers into his home.
Van den Eeckhout was one of Rembrandt’s most talented and versatile pupils, and was probably a member of the master’s workshop from about 1635 to 1640 or 1641. His oeuvre includes history paintings, landscapes, portraits, and genre scenes, as well as etchings, drawings, designs for metal objects, and book illustrations. Although Van den Eeckhout achieved Rembrandtesque effects through a powerful use of light and shade, his manner of painting was smoother and more fluid than that of his teacher.
This painting depicts the Old Testament story of the Levite and his concubine (meaning a wife of inferior status) after they stopped to spend the night at the town of Gibeah. As described in Judges 19, a Levite from Ephraim had married a woman from Bethlehem, in Judah. After the couple quarreled, the concubine left her husband to return to her father’s house. Four months later the Levite and a servant set off to retrieve her. When they arrived in Bethlehem, they were joyously received by both father and daughter and invited to spend several nights in the father’s home. On their return journey to Ephraim, the Levite, his concubine, and the servant sought shelter in Gibeah, a town that belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, but no one would take them in. Van den Eeckhout has here depicted the moment when an aged field laborer, who lived in Gibeah but was from Ephraim, happened upon the travelers and offered them food and lodging, as well as feed for their donkeys.
This story, which begins with an act of charity, soon leads to a gruesome ending. That night, some men from Gibeah surrounded the field laborer’s house and demanded that he turn the Levite over to them so that they could abuse him. The old man pleaded on his guest’s behalf, and offered them instead either his virgin daughter or the Levite’s concubine. Finally only the Levite’s concubine was given over to the men, who raped her throughout the night. The next morning the concubine crawled back to the threshold of the field laborer’s house, where she died. The Levite placed her defiled and lifeless body atop a donkey and returned home. There he cut her body into twelve pieces and sent one piece by messenger to each of the tribes of Israel. The tribes then rose up as one and massacred the Benjaminites (Judges 20).
The moral of this horrific story is difficult to fathom, other than as a condemnation of the evil men of Gibeah. However, in the Statenbijbel, the official Dutch translation of the Bible first published in 1637, blame for the atrocities at Gibeah is also placed on the actions of the Levite’s concubine. This text asserts that before leaving the Levite, she had defiled her marriage by prostituting herself, hence her sad demise served as a warning against the sin of adultery.
See Volker Manuth, “The Levite and His Concubine,” trans. Elizabeth Clegg, Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury, no. 6 (1987): 21, 24 n. 35. Manuth notes that the Utrecht theologian Franciscus Burmanus (1628–1679), in his exegesis of the story, published in Utrecht in 1675, wrote: “and she having sinned with whoring and adultery, God did punish her right unto death.”
The Statenbijbel was not the only literary source for the story, however, and it is probable that Van den Eeckhout based his interpretation primarily on the more sympathetic account of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in Antiquitates Judaicae.
Flavius Josephus, Antiquitates Judaicae, Books IV–VI, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray and Ralph Marcus (Cambridge, MA, 1934; reprint, 1998), Book V, 223–229, lines 136–149. See Christian Tümpel, “De receptie van de ‘Joodse Oudheden’ van Flavius Josephus in de Nederlandse historieschilderkunst,” in Christian Tümpel and Jacqueline Boonen, Het Oude Testament in de schilderkunst van de gouden eeuw (Amsterdam, 1991), 194–206.
Whatever his literary source of inspiration, Van den Eeckhout chose to depict not the grisly aftermath of the story but rather the moment of the field laborer’s selfless act of charity in offering to take in and feed the weary travelers. As Volker Manuth has emphasized, this aspect of the biblical story would have been seen as an exemplary expression of the Christian commandment to love one’s neighbor.
Volker Manuth, “The Levite and His Concubine,” trans. Elizabeth Clegg, Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury, no. 6 (1987), 21–22. As noted in Matthew 25:35, such acts of charity will be rewarded on Judgment Day.
The story of the Levite and his concubine was rarely depicted in Dutch art, and it is not certain what motivated Van den Eeckhout to paint this scene or when exactly he did so.
See Judith van Gent and Gabriël Pastoor, “Het tijdperk van de rechters,” in Christian Tümpel and Jacqueline Boonen, Het Oude Testament in de schilderkunst van de gouden eeuw (Amsterdam, 1991), 82–83.
See Volker Manuth, “The Levite and His Concubine,” trans. Elizabeth Clegg, Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury, no. 6 (1987): 14–16. Rembrandt does not seem to have made a painting of this story, although he may have made drawings of the subject in the 1640s; see Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt: A Critical and Chronological Catalogue, 6 vols. (London, 1954–1957; reprint, and enlarged by Eva Benesch, 1973), 3: nos. 554 and 614, which are in the British Museum, London, and the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt. Aside from Victors (see Volker Manuth, “The Levite and His Concubine,” 18, fig. 9, also shown in Debra Miller, “Jan Victors [1619–76],” PhD diss. [University of Delaware, 1985], 433, no. 66). Manuth also notes that the Amsterdam painter Rombout van Troyen (c. 1605–1650) depicted this subject in a painting dated 1644 (Paris, Musée du Louvre) (see Volker Manuth, “The Levite and His Concubine,” 13, fig. 2).
See Volker Manuth, “The Levite and His Concubine,” trans. Elizabeth Clegg, Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury, no. 6 (1987): 18. See also, however, Irene Geismeier, Holländische und flämische Gemälde des siebenzehnten Jahrhunderts im Bode-Museum (Berlin, 1976), 30–31, no. 1771, who notes the compositional similarities of the Berlin painting with Domenico Feti’s painting Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, 1622, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. She suggests that Van den Eeckhout may have seen Feti’s painting in Brussels, where it was in the collection of Leopold Wilhelm. Her suggestion is based on the observations of N. J. Romanov, “The Subject of One of Van den Eeckhout’s Pictures,” Art in America 21, no.1 (December 1932–1933): 75, who connected the Feti composition to Van den Eeckhout’s later painting of the same subject in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. See Werner Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, 6 vols. (Landau in der Pfalz, 1983), 2: no. 426.
The essential compositional components of the Gallery’s painting are similar to these works, but they differ enough to suggest that they derive from another pictorial source. For instance, the Washington painting gives greater pictorial weight to the aged field laborer’s offer of assistance: he stands facing the viewer with an open gesture that is both compelling in its conviction and welcoming in its expansiveness. The figures, moreover, are situated in a landscape setting and not in front of a closed door of a house. The Gallery’s scene is also more exotic, notably in the oriental character of the Levite’s feathered turban and long cloak with embroidered trim. Stylistically, the painting is more fluidly executed, not only in the flowing rhythms of the folds in the costumes but also in the organic relationships of the figures to one another. These compositional and stylistic differences make it unlikely that Van den Eeckhout executed the Gallery’s painting in the 1650s as has been proposed by recent scholars.
Van den Eeckhout’s 1658 version of the subject is in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. See Werner Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, 6 vols. (Landau in der Pfalz, 1983), 2: no. 426. Both Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, 2: 425, and Volker Manuth, “The Levite and His Concubine,” trans. Elizabeth Clegg, Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury, no. 6 (1987): 18, date the National Gallery of Art painting to the late 1650s. Stylistically, however, these two works are quite different and could not have been executed in the same time period. The Pushkin painting has a greater sense of three-dimensionality and visual complexity than does the Gallery’s painting. Note, in particular, the way folds in the drapery are more carefully articulated because Van den Eeckhout modeled the figures with discrete patterns of light and dark.
It is more likely that the National Gallery of Art painting dates from the early 1640s, as Wolfgang Stechow already suggested in 1969. Stechow posited that the pictorial inspiration for this work might have been a lost prototype by Rembrandt’s master Pieter Lastman (1583–1633).
Wolfgang Stechow, “Some Observations on Rembrandt and Lastman,” Oud Holland 84, nos. 2–3 (1969): 151, 156, fig. 10. Stechow cites, as a close visual comparison, Lastman’s painting Laban Searching for His Idols, 1622, in the museum in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Rembrandt owned a number of paintings by Lastman as well as portfolios with pen and chalk sketches. See Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York, 1979), 1656/12, fol. 30, 353; 1656/12, fol. 32, 361; 1656/12, fol. 36, 377; 1660/1, 455; and 1662/6, 500.
The laborer’s gesturing pose, with outstretched hand, is one frequently found in Lastman’s works; see, for example, the figure of Jesus in Christ and the Woman of Canaan, 1617, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Sumowski made this suggestion in Rembrandt and His Pupils (Montreal, 1969), 84, no. 48, although he later retreated from it in Werner Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, 6 vols. (Landau in der Pfalz, 1983), 2:732, no. 425, probably because at that point he dated the painting to the late 1650s.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
Art market, New York, 1960s; purchased by Emile E. Wolf [1899-1996], New York; gift 1996 to NGA.
- Rembrandt and His Pupils, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1969, no. 48.
- The Discovery of the Everyday: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Paintings from the Wolf Collection, Chrysler Museum, Norfolk; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; Tampa Museum, 1982-1983, no. 11, repro.
The original support consists of a plain-weave, medium-weight fabric. It has been adhered to a coarser, heavier weight fabric and subsequently loose lined to a third piece of fabric. The painting was somewhat crooked on the auxiliary fabric when it was lined, therefore for the painting to be viewed straight, the current stretcher had to be made slightly larger than the dimensions of the painting, resulting in an uneven border of exposed lining fabric. The tacking margins have been removed, but even though there is no sign of cusping, compositionally the painting does not appear to have been reduced in size. The support was prepared with a double ground consisting of a red layer followed by a gray one. The gray ground appears to be intermittently incorporated into the composition of the painting. The paint was applied with a wet-over-dry technique. The background landscape is thinly painted overall, while the figures and drapery are thickly painted as if executed with a heavily loaded brush, with slight impasto in the white highlights.
X-radiographs reveal the presence of numerous old tears, losses, and damages in the fabric. A fabric insert exists in the proper right arm of the figure on the far left and above the shoulder of the dog on the far left of the painting. A complex, cross-shaped, branched tear is located across the far left figure’s proper right knee and extends into the dog’s back. Additional smaller tears are above and to the proper left of the far left figure’s head and in the upper center portion of the painting. The paint and ground layers have suffered scattered losses and numerous areas of abrasion. The worst areas of abrasion are located throughout the sky and in the hind legs of the central donkey. The painting was treated in 2009–2011, at which time the loose lining and stretcher were replaced, and discolored varnish and inpainting were removed. During this treatment the abraded areas were inpainted and missing glazes in the sky were replaced.
- Held, Julius S. "Die Ausstellung 'Rembrandt and his Pupils' in Montreal und Toronto." Pantheon 27 (September-October 1969): 386-395, fig. 2.
- Montreal Museum of Fine Art, and Art Gallery of Ontario. Rembrandt and his Pupils. Exh. cat. Montreal Museum of Fine Art; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Montreal, 1969: 84, no. 48.
- Rifkin, Benjamin A. "Rembrandt and His Circle, Part II." Art News 68 (6 October 1969): 33.
- Rifkin, Benjamin A. "Rembrandt and His Circle, Part III." Art News (7 November 1969): 89.
- Stechow, Wolfgang. "Some Observations on Rembrandt and Lastman." Oud Holland 84, no. 1-4 (1969): 156, fig. 9.
- Robinson, Franklin W. The Discovery of the everyday: seventeenth century Dutch paintings from the Wolf Collection. Exh. cat. Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia; Tampa Museum; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Norfolk, 1982: no. 11, color repro.
- Sumowski, Werner. Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler in vier Bänden. 6 vols. Landau, 1983: 2:732, 788, no. 425, repro.
- Manuth, Volker. "The Levite and His Concubine." Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury 6 (1987): 18.
- the Acts of Mercy
- charitable works
- artist +Pieter Lastman + influence of
- historical person +Flavius Josephus + author critic
- return journey of the Levite and his concubine
- Christ as teacher part I explaining his doctrine; teaching ~ parables and proverbs