Hagar by Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis

Hagar, 1875, Marble, 133.6 x 38.8 x 43.4 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., 1983.95.178, Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/hagar-14627

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In the Wilderness

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Hagar leaves her master Abraham’s household twice. In Genesis 16, while pregnant with his son Ishmael, she runs away to escape his wife Sarah’s abuse, but in Genesis 21 she and Ishmael are expelled.

In the wilderness, Hagar also experiences two theophanies or appearances of the divine. The angel tells her to return to her mistress Sarah in Genesis 16, while in Genesis 21, the angel appears after Hagar moves away from Ishmael so as to avoid watching him die of thirst.

The neo-classical sculpture Hagar by Native- and African-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis captures the moment when Hagar’s despair is transformed.

Lewis presents Hagar as alone in the wilderness without her son. Only the empty water jug at her feet suggests the episode in Genesis 21. Hagar seems to be in motion. Her right heel is lifted, her left leg steps forward, and her clothing is pressed to her body. Yet, she does not appear to be running or fleeing danger. Although her single bared breast and knees are visible, she is not a dishevelled desert traveller crawling in anguish or panting with thirst. While other artists focus on Hagar’s grief and agony, Lewis offers a hopeful Hagar. With hands clasped together, her upturned eyes suggest that Lewis may be depicting the point at which the angel calls to her.

In the midst of this life-and-death crisis, Hagar is expectant. God has heard Ishmael. It is not clear how things will unfold, but she and her son will live. She is anticipating what God has in store for her, her son, and the nation that his descendants will become. Lewis’s Hagar seems grateful to God who has been faithful to his promises to Abraham’s first-born son.



Buick, Kirsten Pai. 2010. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham, NC: Duke University Press)

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