The reproduction of Lot and His Daughters (ca. 1517), a painting by an early 16th century anonymous painter from Antwerp or Leiden, got barely a postage stamp’s worth of space in The Louvre: All the Paintings. The landscape surrounding the three figures includes Sodom and Gomorrah on fire; an enormous harbour surrounding the burning city; and a monumental bridge on which Lot’s wife, turned to salt, is standing looking back. All this detail dwarfs the title characters, who are positioned in front of a tent on an overhang across the water from the burning city. Still, despite their minuscule size, they were what interested me the most. I was especially curious about why Lot was depicted embracing one of the two young women. I had never thought of the incident as involving sexual desire; Genesis 19 says the girls were afraid that, with the destruction of the city, there was no man except their father to give them children, so they made Lot drunk, and each daughter in turn “lay down” with him. Verse 33 says specifically that Lot was a passive participant: he “did not know when she [his first daughter] lay down or when she arose”. The same words are used to describe the second daughter’s experience. I wondered if anyone else had thought it worthwhile to investigate the painting’s portrayal of Lot as sinning rather than sinned against.
Although I didn’t find what I set out to locate, that is, expert analysis that commented on this particular feature of the painting, I decided to write about some of the things I did find out.
First, it wasn’t easy to locate information about the painting on the usually user-friendly Louvre website. I started, as usual, by clicking on Collections and Louvre Palace on the Louvre home page; I then chose Search the Collection from the menu. Scrolling down brought me to a box with two search options: Simple Search and Databases. I started with the Simple Search. Its results, in addition to identifying paintings on the website that are accompanied by a substantial commentary, usually, although not always, include a list from the Atlas Database. For “anonymous artist from Antwerp or Leiden,” the Simple Search produced no results, including no results from the Atlas Database. Just to be sure, I went back to the Databases tab and clicked. The first database listed there is the Atlas, with a link to it. Again, no results, and no results also from searching for variations on the artist’s identification, e.g., “anonymous Antwerp”. I considered trying the French-language version of the Atlas Database but wasn’t sure about the proper search terms. Sometimes an unnamed artist is referred to by a city name, sometimes by a country, and sometimes simply by his or her status as unknown or anonymous. I made one more try with the English Atlas Database with the search terms “lot daughters”, which produced three results, one of them the painting I was looking for. In the entry, I found that the artist was called “anonymous artist”. I hadn’t tried searching with just those two words because I thought it would likely bring up a discouragingly large list to go through, but when I tried “anonymous artist” in the English Atlas Database, the list was brief and included the painting; it still didn’t work for the Simple Search, however. After all that, the text accompanying the painting gave very little information: it was by an anonymous artist from either Antwerp or Leiden, active ca. 1525-1530, and it was acquired by the Louvre in 1900.
Although the website had very little information about my particular painting, I had found out from my search that there were in the Louvre at least two other paintings entitled Lot and His Daughters. I realized that I must have looked at both of them before during the first year of my Louvre project: Bernardo Callavino (1616-1656) had painted the subject many times, with the one in the Louvre collection dating from 1645, and shortly after him, Guercino (1591-1666) had painted the same subject in 1661. In both painting, the subject clearly shows Lot under the control of his two daughters. My notes didn’t say anything about Guercino’s version, but in August 2013 I wrote the following about Callavino’s: “The painting doesn’t make much sense. The man doesn’t really look all that appealing. He looks old and gaunt and confused; he is being supported by the young women, whose fresh white garments contrast starkly with his ragged robes. He is their prey, but they don’t show pleasure in their power. Are the women preying on him because they want sex, or are they angry because they feel they must subordinate their own preferences to the needs of the human race?”
Or should we see in their actions a reference to an earlier event in the story, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot offered his daughters to an angry mob as a way to save the messengers from God who had taken shelter in Lot’s house? In Genesis 19:7-8, Lot says, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters, who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” For Katherine B. Low, Lot should be seen as an abuser because he treated his daughters as property he could dispose of. Low’s article, “The Sexual Abuse of Lot’s Daughters: Reconceptualizing Kinship for the Sake of Our Daughters” (Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 2010), is one of a number of texts I found in which the incest of Lot and his daughters is re-examined. Explaining and evaluating the complex arguments involved in these re-examinations of the Bible story are beyond the scope of this blog entry, but they deserve mention, I think, because they were what first pointed out a connection between Lot’s offer of his daughters to the mob and his daughters’ plot to have him impregnate them. Was my painting’s view of Lot as seducer rather than the dupe of his daughters meant also to relate the two events by proposing that the earlier instance of Lot’s exercise of power was in some way present in the incest, even though the story in this incident describes Lot as a victim?
I will end with a brief comment about a Google search I did for “Lot and His Daughters”. I located a Wikipedia entry about the Bible story, with a link to the WikiCommons, where I found reproductions of several paintings, including the one I was investigating. It was identified as part of the Louvre’s collection, but the artist was identified as Lucas van Leyden. Van Leyden (1489-1533) does have a painting in the Louvre, The Fortune-Teller (ca. 1508). Just how the mistaken attribution got started, I don’t know, but I found it elsewhere as well, including in the Web Gallery of Art, a site I’ve often used and found reliable.