Elijah in the Desert
Washington Allston, American, 1779–1843
Overall: 125.1 x 184.8cm (49 1/4 x 72 3/4in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Penny and Jeff Vinik Gallery (Gallery 233)
A South Carolinian by birth, Washington Allston attended Harvard College. After graduating he went to London in 1801, where he studied with Benjamin West. He also traveled the Continent, making extended visits to Paris, for almost a year, and Rome, where he stayed for over three years and painted himself in the guise of an intellectual and passionate travelerlink. After another trip abroad in the 1810s, he returned to the United States and settled in Cambridgeport, near Boston.
Allston is considered America’s first Romantic painter. He took the subject for Elijah in the Desert from the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 17:1–7, God ordered the prophet into the desert where he was miraculously kept alive by ravens, which brought him bread and meat. Allston conveyed Elijah’s experience and appealed to the viewer’s emotional rather than intellectual response through the bleakness of the vast, inhospitable landscape, painted in a sober palette of browns, steely blues, and grays. The mood of desolation and abandonment is underscored by the tiny size of the figure. The sources for Allston’s work here reflect his study of the old masters during his time abroad and include the Venetian Renaissance artist Titian, for his subtle manipulation of expressive color, and the Baroque painter Salvator Rosa, for the drama of the composition.
Allston was held in the highest esteem in nineteenth-century Boston, where his work appealed especially to literary figures and intellectuals. When plans to establish an art museum in the city evolved after the Civil War, Alice Hooper (who, with her mother, was the donor of this painting) wrote to one of the founders, Martin Brimmer, “We thought we couldn’t better testify our interest in this new art movement at home than by adding a really fine Allston to our public collection.” She went on to suggest that the museum be named after Allston, “the one great artist of America,” although in fact it became the Museum of Fine Arts. linkElijah in the Desert was the very first object to enter the collection in 1870, even before the Museum had a building.
1. Alice Hooper to Major General Charles Greely Loring, July 24, 1870, object files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting link, MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).