Lot and his Daughters: telling a difficult story

Putting Artemisia Gentileschi's approach to 'Lot and his Daughters' in context

The National Gallery, London

Landscape with the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (circa 1520) by Joachim PatinirMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen

The story

The Old Testament story of God's destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah had fascinated European artists long before Artemisia was born. 

This picture from about 1520, by the Flemish painter Joachim Patinir, conjures up a hellish vision of the cities ablaze.

The sky has turned red and the buildings, including a row of windmills, stand silhouetted against the flames.

On the far right, diminutive figures make their escape with the help of two angels. These are the elderly Lot with his two daughters.

Lot's wife stands further back - tiny and alone on the plain (right). She disobeyed God's command not to look back as they fled Sodom, and was punished by being turned into a pillar of salt.  

Patinir portrays her immobilised form with just a few touches of white paint. 

Patinir depicts the next episode in the story as taking place in a tent, high up on the rocks.

Believing themselves to be the only people left alive on earth, Lot's daughters come to a difficult decision. They resolve to become pregnant by their father, in order to save the human race.

Plying him with food and wine, they get Lot so drunk that he forgets who they are.  They then seduce him.

The two sons born from this incestuous union – Moab and Ammon – grow up to become enemies of the Jewish people, suggesting that Lot's daughters acted in error.

The episode showing Lot with his daughters became hugely popular among artists and their patrons in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Lot and His Daughters (1530) by Lucas van LeydenNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Interpretations

Many artists took the perceived moral impropriety of the episode as a license to create erotic imagery in which Lot's daughters are shown as naked temptresses.

This engraving of 1530 by the Dutch printmaker Lucas van Leyden fully adopts this approach.

In his version of events Lot's daughters are wily, and Lot himself – looking much younger than the old man in the biblical account – is overwhelmed with desire.

Lot and His Daughters (circa 1595) by Joachim Antonisz WtewaelLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Another Dutch artist, Joachim Wtewael, added an element of over-indulgence to his depiction of the scene, showing Lot's nubile daughters surrounded by an abundance of food. This picture was painted in about 1595, just a couple of years after Artemisia was born in Rome.

Like Van Leyden, Wtewael makes nudity and lust the central focus of his work.

But he also suggests Lot and his daughters are guilty of the sins of gluttony by showing them surrounded by copious amounts of food in the form of grapes, bread and a magnificent stack of cheese.

Lot and his Daughters (1610/1616) by Peter Paul RubensGallery of Old and New Masters, Staatliches Museum Schwerin / Ludwigslust / Güstrow

The celebrated Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, took a different approach in his version of the story painted in 1610–16.

He focuses on Lot's desire, making him a powerful, muscular figure.

Lot's face is flushed and his expression is aggressively lustful. By contrast, his blonde-haired daughter is very pale and looks almost apprehensive.

Although as she holds her father's gaze, she reaches out to her sister to refill his cup.

The opulence of this cup and the ornate golden ewer would no doubt have appealed to a wealthy patron.

Lot and His Daughters (1631) by Jan Joris van VlietLos Angeles County Museum of Art

A couple of decades on, Rembrandt found comedy in Lot's drunkenness. The old man appears to be singing rowdily, oblivious to his daughters' tactics.

In this etching from 1631, made in collaboration with the printmaker Jan van Vliet, Rembrandt shows Lot bleary-eyed. A few drops of wine drip for the empty wine cup he holds aloft and his robes fall open at the waist. 

As a final mark of drunken indignity, Rembrandt depicts Lot's legs stuck out at an angle, with one stocking having fallen to reveal a creased and elderly knee. 

An Italian example, in Artemisia's own time, is this work by Guido Reni. It is less focussed on sin than those produced by northern artists and appears to show the daughters in debate with their father – perhaps discussing their decision. 

Reni eliminates all the usual narrative details. There is no city of Sodom burning in the background, no abandoned figure of Lot's wife, no piles of food, and drunkenness and lust are also absent. Rather, Reni’s representation appears to show a sober patriarch considering reasoned argument.

Particularly striking is the idealised beauty of Lot’s two daughters, probably inspired by antique statuary Reni studied during his many years in Rome.   

Lot and His Daughters (about 1622) by Orazio GentileschiThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In a treatment of the subject closer to home, Artemisia's own father, Orazio Gentileschi, took an altogether more naturalistic approach to the scene. 

In this painting of about 1622, he used live models to pose for his figures, dressing them in simple clothes.

He also chose to represent a different moment - the morning after the drinking.

The gilt cup lies discarded and the flask of wine is empty.

And Lot lies fast asleep in the lap of one of his daughters. 

One daughter's bare shoulder and legs hints at the seduction of the night before. But there is also a sense of the future. Dawn breaks over the hills and her sister points to something beyond our field of vision. 

Lot and His Daughters (about 1636–38) by Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593–1652/53)The Toledo Museum of Art

A different perspective

Artemisia's version of the subject was painted in about 1636–8, when she was living and working in Naples.

As a singularly successful female artist, her work was particularly prized for the unique perspective she brought to well-known subjects.

With Lot and his Daughters, she sets the commonplace salacious or comical treatments to one side.

Instead she thinks about the scene more from the daughters' perspective. 

She sets one daughter against the background of the burning city of Sodom, with the immobilised figure of her mother in the distance behind her. 

Through these details Artemisia reminds the viewer of the recent catastrophes the family has suffered.

Perhaps, she implies, the daughters’ decision has been made under the duress of disaster. 

Certainly, the  daughters are tender toward their father. Their expressions are kindly, as they gently coax him to eat and drink.

And their exchange of glances suggests a sisterly bond.

While the way Artemisia paints the position of one daughter's legs echoing that of her father's, indicates their family unity.

Rather than condemning or judging her protagonists, Artemisia points to the moral ambiguities of the story. 

In her hands, Lot and his daughters emerge not as morally corrupt and sinful individuals, but as a family faced with unavoidable and unenviable choices.

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