Hagar was the Egyptian handmaid of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. When her teenage son, Ishmael, made sport of Sarah’s son, Isaac, she was exiled to the desert with some bread and a bottle of water. One of four Biblical paintings that Corot exhibited in the 1830s and 1840s, Hagar in the Wilderness depicts the moment of their salvation:
“And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.'” [Genesis 21:15-18]
In composing this landscape, Corot drew upon his earlier plein air sketches of Italy and France. The large tree in the upper left was reproduced from Fontainebleau: Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau, completed two or three years prior. Painting out-of-doors as the basis for more considered studio work, Corot prepared the way for the Impressionists, for whom plein air was an end in itself.