Monday, February 11, 2008

Abraham and Isaac

Richard Sevigny often addressed Biblical themes, as he did in this oil painting. He said he hoped to reinterpret religious stories to renew the force they’d lost over time.

To say he was an armchair Biblical scholar would be an understatement. His familiarity with the Bible and his knowledge of the
canonical and Gnostic gospels were as profound as his artistic ability. He was closely involved with the Congregational Church for much of his life, and later, worked for the Archdiocese of Miami, where a number of bishops befriended him.

This painting was inspired by the well-known story from Genesis,
Chapter 22, in which God tests Abraham’s faith by commanding him to kill his own son.

In the painting, the “light of God” shines down on the pair from the upper left. Abraham is portrayed as old, perhaps unexpectedly so to have fathered a boy as young as the Isaac we see. The father looks up, waiting for instructions, and his face reveals a stern will to obey. Isaac is naked and vulnerable, not only to the blade, but also to viewers of the painting.

In a dose of almost surrealist minimalism, Richard left the background free of all visual clues that might have been visible at the scene. We know the episode happened outside, in the desert, but there is nothing in the painting that tells us this. Leaving the “setting” out of the work, Richard put the emphasis on the three-way relationship between God, Abraham and his son at a critical moment in Judeo-Christian history. The result is an iconic painting and one of my father’s best.

Richard frequently criticized artists who portrayed Biblical figures as White Europeans. That he gave both Abraham and Isaac Semitic facial features can be seen as an attempt at historical accuracy, but also, as a jab at the centuries-old tradition of portraying Middle Easterners as Anglos.

John Sevigny

3 comments:

joemeek said...

A remarkable image! You note that most commentators usually portray abraham as a white guy. True, i guess, but the thing that always gets me is that they portray him as a sane guy. This image captures the real guts of the story - a father and son in the grip of something so powerful that.... Well, it's not abraham's first go-round with child sacrifice - don't forget hagar's son - but, as you suggest in the introduction to the post, this image seems to truly capture and renew the force of this amazing and crazy story.

My best to everyone involved in this project.

-- michael stevens, high school classmate of richard.

The Nort said...

While it's true Richard took this subject seriously (father of two sons himself), his sense of humor should not be forgotten either. More than once when we discussed this subject one of us would refer to this wonderful passage from Bob Dylan's "Highway 61:"

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."
Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on."
God said "No," Abe said "What?"
God said "You can do what you want, Abe, BUT
the next time you see me comin' you better run."
Abe said, "Where do you want this killing done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61."

John Sevigny said...

Thanks for your comments and for taking time to look at Richard's work. I think Richard would have been delighted to have people discussing his work this way.

Very interesting point about Abraham always being portrayed as not only white but sane.

As this project unfolds, I think you'll see more of Richard's sense of humor. We're not presenting his work in any planned order but we are beginning with some pieces with which his friends are probably most familiar.

John