Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael by George Segal

George Segal

Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, 1987, Painted plaster, 271.78 x 137.16 x 137.16 cm, Pérez Art Museum, Miami; Gift of The George and Helen Segal Foundation, Inc., 2001.10, © 2020 The George and Helen Segal Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: Oriol Tarridas, © Pérez Art Museum Miami

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Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

George Segal’s Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael focuses on the parting of Abraham and Ishmael, but it invites us to witness the tension and trauma within Abraham’s wider family. Although the biblical text does not provide details of their leave-taking, Segal captures a moment in time that permits the viewer to engage different perspectives on the family.

Hooded with hands clasped, Abraham’s first wife Sarah stands alone, waiting and watching dispassionately as Abraham and Ishmael say their final goodbye. Hers is a confident, supervisory posture; she is overseeing the execution of her second scheme to have the family she desires. The first was the use of Hagar as a surrogate which led to the birth of Ishmael. Now that Sarah has her own child, Isaac, she wants Ishmael out of the picture.

Though Isaac is absent from Segal’s depiction of the family, he is the future, while Ishmael is part of the past. The die is cast.

Like Sarah, Hagar stands alone, but she faces away from the others. Appearing paler than the rest of the group, her prominence and her separateness are underscored. According to the text, Abraham has provided her with bread and water for her and her son’s journey. With a single bag slung over her shoulder, one realizes how meagre are these provisions. Despite Abraham’s wealth (Genesis 13:2), no retinue of servants or caravan of donkeys will accompany her and Ishmael into the wilderness. Her arm and hand placement mimic that of Abraham, but her arms are empty as she hugs only herself.

Abraham and Ishmael appear emotional as they linger in a warm embrace with their heads resting on each other’s shoulders. Wearing shorts, Ishmael looks both very contemporary—perhaps like a young adult leaving for college—and also vulnerable. Although God has reassured Abraham that Ishmael will become a ‘nation’, Abraham is exposing his second wife and his first son to an uncertain future. Sarah’s plan, which is now God’s plan (Genesis 21:12–13), has been set in motion.



Exum, J. Cheryl. 2019. Art as Biblical Commentary: Visual Criticism from Hagar the Wife of Abraham to Mary the Mother of Jesus (New York: T&T Clark)

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