Bereshit 16 tells of the giving of Hagar to Avraham, her pregnancy, and her subsequent belittling of Sarah. When Sarah reacts by treating her servant harshly, Hagar flees from her mistress. The two paintings displayed here, Peter Paul Rubens' Hagar Leaves the Home of Abraham (1615-1617)1 and Pietro da Cortona's The Return of Hagar (1637),2 depict different stages of the story. Rubens highlights Hagar's departure, while Cortona portrays her return. Their portrayals raise questions regarding each of the characters' roles, including Sarah's treatment of her servant, Avraham's feelings towards Hagar, and Hagar's own decision to flee.
Rubens sets the scene near the entrance to Avraham and Sarah's home, at the moment of Hagar's departure. Sarah looks angrily at Hagar as she raises her arm, signaling to her servant to leave. Avraham gazes at Hagar from inside the doorway, but it is difficult to interpret his glance. Whatever he might be feeling, he does not interfere. A visibly pregnant Hagar faces the couple, looking upset, but surprisingly serene, as she is about to leave. She is dressed in expensive attire, rather than in maidservants' rags, and clutches a cloth-covered parcel in her arm.
Cortona, in contrast to Rubens, chooses to depict Hagar's return home.3 He, too, paints all three characters at the entrance to Avraham and Sarah's tent. In his picture, though, Avraham, rather than Sarah, is the active party. He greets Hagar with open arms, while Sarah stands behind him in the doorway, her eyes downcast. Cortona's Hagar bears no explicit signs of pregnancy. She returns richly clothed and accompanied by an angel, seemingly unharmed by her desert escapade.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Avraham and Hagar
In Ruben's painting, Avraham is depicted as a bystander to the events, apparently loathe to intervene in Sarah's domain. Cortona, in contrast, paints him happily welcoming the returning Hagar. The different portrayals highlight an unknown in the Biblical narrative. What were Avraham's feelings towards Hagar? To what extent was he complicit in Sarah's harsh treatment? When Sarah demands that Hagar and Yishmael be sent away in Chapter 21, the text tells us that "וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם עַל אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ". Here, though, no similar statement is found, leaving room for more than one read of Avraham's emotions and motivations.
While Rubens' Hagar is clearly several months pregnant, Cortona's Hagar does not show signs of carrying a child. This relates to an ambiguity in the text. At the beginning of the story we are told that Hagar is expecting a child, yet, when the angel speaks to Hagar in the desert, he tells her "הִנָּךְ הָרָה", a seemingly superfluous point. Radak suggests that this merely introduces the continuation of the angel's speech in which he tells Hagar that she is to bear a son and name him Yishmael. In contrast, the Midrash proposes that Hagar had miscarried her child as a result of Sarah's mistreatment, and the angel is promising her that if she returns to Avraham, she will conceive a second time.4 See Hagar – How Many Pregnancies for more.
Flight or Dismissal?
Rubens' rendering suggests that Sarah explicitly banished Hagar from her home. The text, though, tells us that "Hagar fled," giving the impression that she did so furtively. Rubens might simply be influenced by the later story in Chapter 21 in which Hagar is actively chased away, but his depiction, nonetheless, raises several questions. Did Hagar leave against the will of Avraham and Sarah, or did she run away with Sarah's knowledge and perhaps, even, her consent? Did Sarah effectively (if not literally) dismiss Hagar from her home through her actions? This depends on how one understands the nature of Sarah's actions and what is meant by the phrase "וַתְּעַנֶּהָ שָׂרַי". Some5 suggest that the term refers to hard labor, while others6 propose that Sarah prevented Hagar from having relations with Avraham. Alternatively, the term might mean to subdue; Sarah put Hagar in her place, underscoring her maidservant status.7 See Sarah and Hagar for more.