Rebecca and Eleazar at the Well by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta

Rebecca and Elizear at the Well by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (c.1740)

Today I am returning to Italy for My Daily Art Display painting.  It is a painting based on a biblical tale and one that features the work of the Venetian rococo painter of religious subjects, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta.  Piazzetta was born in Venice in 1682.   His father, Giacomo was a sculptor, and he gave his son his first artistic tuition, concentrating on wood sculpture.  Starting in 1697, at the age of fifteen Giovanni started studying painting under the auspices of the painter Antonio Molinari, an Italian artist of the Baroque era of Venice. Later in his early twenties he went to Bologna and studied under Giuseppe Mari Crespi, another Baroque painter, who was part of the Bolognese School of painting.   The Bolognese School of painting thrived in this capital city of Emilia Romagna during the 16th and 17th centuries and was considered the equal of Florence and Rome as the perceived centre of Italian painting.   It was probably Crespi who persuaded Piazzetta to take up genre subjects.   Piazzetta remained in Bologna for two years and was influenced by the works of another Bolognese artist, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, who was the cross-eyed painter and who was better known by his nickname, Guernico, which in Italian means ‘squinter’!  Guernico was renowned for his religious paintings and altarpieces, with their rich colours and dramatic storytelling and his influence can be seen in some of Piazzetta’s own religious works.  Today’s featured painting is a great example of this aspect of his work.

Piazzetta returned to Venice in 1710 but struggled somewhat to get commissions in comparison with his artistic contemporary, Sebastiano Ricci and the young “newcomer on the block” Giovanni Tiepolo,  who had both begun to corner the market with their popular late Baroque/Rococo works.  However Piazzetta supplemented his income by illustrating books. His presentation drawings, portraits, and character heads, usually made in charcoal or white chalk, were also in wide demand from discerning collectors. He was a slow worker, and often painted the same subject several times with subtle modifications.  He was a perfectionist.  In 1750 Piazzetta became the first director of the newly founded Venice Academy of Fine Arts, which was established by the Senate and included courses of Academy Figure, Portrait, Landscape and Sculpture.  He devoted himself in the last few years of his life to teaching and although never wealthy he was always admired for his art work.   He died in Venice on April 28, 1754, aged 72.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is by Piazzetta and is entitled Rebecca and Eleazar at the Well.  He completed this oil on canvas painting around 1740 and was one I saw when I visited the Brera Gallery in Milan.  As I said at the beginning, this painting is based on the Old Testament story in the Book of Genesis, (Chapter24).  For those of you are unfamiliar with the story let me give you a précis of the biblical tale.

Abraham who was  well advanced in years, had a son named Isaac and wanted to find a good wife for him.  He spoke to his trusted servant Eleazar and said:

“…Put your hand under my thigh, that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac…”

The servant Eleazar was concerned that the woman he chose for Abraham’s son would not want to come back with him and asked why he could not choose a local girl instead, but Abraham would have none of that idea and eased the mind of his servant:

“ … The servant said to him, ‘Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?’   Abraham said to him, ‘See to it that you do not take my son back there.  The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.  But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.”  So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter…”

And so Eleazar set off on his quest and he later relates the meeting with Rebekah:

“…Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all sorts of choice gifts from his master; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor.  And he made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time when women go out to draw water…”

So Eleazar had reached the well but was now concerned about how he would decide which woman he should choose for the wife-to-be of Isaac:   

 “…And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

 Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known…”

 Then Rebecca’s brother and mother came to Eleazar, who was standing at the well:

 “…Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good.  Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”    When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed himself to the earth before the Lord.  And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments…”

 So it is at this point of the story that we can now look at today’s painting in which Piazzetta pictorially displays the meeting at the well of Eleazar, Abraham’s servant and messenger and Rebekah (Rebecca), Isaac’s future wife.  The characters in the painting are dressed in fashionable eighteenth century clothes.  Eleazar, dressed in brown with a rose-coloured sash around his waist, holds the jewellery which he is offering to Rebecca who clutches to her side a pitcher of water.   She looks slightly taken aback at the offering.  The half-figure composition painted with a light and luminous palette could almost be a pastoral scene with the cattle, camel and a dog squeezed into the left of the painting.

This meeting between Eleazar and Rebecca was the subject of many paintings including ones by Tiepolo, Poussin and Murillo.  However of the ones I have looked at I believe the painting by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta is the best.