This work was gifted to the Musée du Louvre in 2017, having been on loan to the Louvre’s Dutch galleries since its acquisition in 2010.
Ferdinand Bol’s tender portrayal of the Old Testament story of Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well demonstrates the artist’s sensitivity and invention in rendering biblical narratives.1 As told in the Book of Moses, the aging patriarch Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to Mesopotamia in search of a wife for his son, Isaac. Upon reaching the edge of the city of Nahor, Eliezer stopped by a well and prayed to God for guidance. He asked that the first woman to show him and his camels kindness by offering them water would become Isaac’s chosen wife. “And so it came to pass, before he had done speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out . . . with her pitcher upon her shoulder. And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher and came up. And the servant ran to meet her, and said, ‘Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher.’ ‘Drink, my lord’: and she hasted, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him a drink” (Gen. 24:10–20).
Seated with his back to the viewer, Eliezer cups Rebecca’s large pitcher between his hands to take his first sip of water. Broad passages of light and dark define his thick shoulders and torso, which are clothed in a brown tunic and accented by a bright red-belted sash.2 Rebecca supports the heavy vessel from below, and gently tilts the pitcher towards Eliezer’s lips. She forms the core of the painting’s pyramidal composition, holding a position of strength and stability. As Rebecca gazes down on Eliezer with a soft, compassionate expression, she seems to have already accepted God’s will. Light falling over her face and cream-colored robes accents her earring, as well as a jewel nestled into the cascade of maroon fabric behind Eliezer, jewelry that Rebecca would receive as a gift for her hand in marriage.3
Next to Rebecca is a young maidservant whose crimson dress echoes the color of Eliezer’s belted sash. She empties a bucket of water into a trough for sheep, three of which are partially visible in this tightly cropped composition.4 Behind the figures is a rugged, mountainous landscape with a view of Nahor’s rooftops visible in the left background. Near the city are Eliezer’s retinue and camels, one of which peers out toward its master, eager to receive its own drink.
By focusing on the interaction between Rebecca and Eliezer, Bol captured the humanity and grace that accompanied this divine moment. In doing so, he evoked not only Rebecca’s own attributes, but also the universal qualities of generosity and humility that made her a model for wives in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.5 The story of Rebecca and Eliezer was celebrated in prints, emblem books, and penningen, marriage tokens given to brides on their wedding day.6 The two figures were traditionally depicted in a large stage-like setting before the well, where a group of onlookers watches Rebecca’s formal and reserved passing of the pitcher to Eliezer. Bol’s approach, which emphasized the delicate human relationship between Rebecca and Eliezer, reflected the influence of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), whose studio Bol left around 1641.7
Although Rembrandt himself never painted this Old Testament story, several drawings both by and attributed to the artist from the late 1630s and early 1640s demonstrate that the subject interested him and members of his workshop.8 A drawing attributed to Rembrandt at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, dated to the 1640s, depicts Rebecca gently guiding the pitcher to Eliezer’s lips, much as in this painting.9 A slightly later pen and wash drawing in Darmstadt (fig 1), a copy of a lost Rembrandt painting, is a particularly close compositional prototype for Bol’s painting. The image shows Eliezer seated with his back to the viewer, rendered in half shadow. Rebecca tenderly clasps her hand to her chest as she and her maidservant gaze down toward him. In his painting, Bol simplified the narrative by monumentalizing the figures and focusing on Rebecca’s act of kindness.10
Bol’s treatment of this story corresponded to other biblical history paintings he executed in the mid-1640s, such as the Leiden Collection’s The Angel Appearing to Elijah, dated to ca. 1642, and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt and Judah Gives Thamar His Signet Ring, both dated to 1644.11 In each of these works Bol similarly situated large, weighty figures in tightly composed landscapes. With his rich chiaroscuro and tonal palette, Bol focused on quiet narrative moments that emphasized intimate human interaction. Among these works, Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well displays a more assured command of form, space and the exchange of gestures, suggesting that he executed it at a slightly later date, probably around 1645–46.12
Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well is Bol’s only known painting of this subject, but he also rendered this biblical narrative in a drawing from the latter half of the 1640s (fig 2).13 In this work, Bol expanded the scope of the composition by adding more figures and enlarging the setting. Most significantly, he distanced the relationship between Rebecca and Eliezer. Rebecca, now wearing a large broad-brimmed hat, stands above Abraham’s servant as he looks past her and balances the pitcher on his knee. To the left, an arched doorway reveals a gentle landscape, while Eliezer’s camels gather at the well to the right. The substantial differences that exist between the drawing and the painting suggest that the two works were created independently of each other.
In about 1648, Bol executed a portrait historié of Anna van Erckel and her first husband, Erasmus Scharlaken, as Isaac and Rebecca (fig 3).14 The wealthy couple’s decision to have themselves portrayed in the guise of Old Testament figures was in line with seventeenth-century fashions, but it also demonstrates the importance of this biblical episode as a model for married couples.15 The woman’s costume in the Dordrecht work is nearly identical to the cream-colored dress worn by Rebecca in the Leiden Collection painting, and both works share an earth-toned palette and undulating use of light and shadow. These similarities, while establishing an iconographic relationship between the two images, also reinforce the dating of Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well to this same period of Bol’s career. These two paintings indicate that Bol continued to explore the pictorial possibilities of the subject during the latter part of the 1640s, much as did other artists who had studied with Rembrandt earlier in that decade, including Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–74) and Carel Fabritius (1622–54).16