DEGAS, Edgar
(b. 1834, Paris, d. 1917, Paris)

Jephthah's Daughter

Oil on canvas, 183 x 296 cm
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton

Beside portraiture, Degas's early work was also centred on historical themes drawn from religious tradition or mythology. Between 1860 and 1865 he painted five historical paintings, for which there are several sketches and versions: Young Spartans Exercising, Semiramis Founding a City, Alexander and Bucephalus, Jephthah's Daughter, and The Sufferings of the City of New Orleans, the latter being his first entry at the Salon.

These paintings are very original and unlike any historical painting in the nineteenth century. They conformed to the rules of classicist composition, but they were also innovative because of the freshness of his figures and the warm colours of his landscapes.

The Jephthah's Daughter is probably the most successful of these early pictures. It depicts a scene from the Old Testament. Jephthah was a great Old Testament (Judges 11:30-40) warrior, who was called upon to lead the Israelites in their war against the Ammonites. On the eve of the battle he made a pact with God, that, in return for victory, he would sacrifice 'the first creature that comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return'. The battle won, 'who should come out to meet him with tambourines and dances but his daughter, and she only a child'.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.