According to Genesis (21:14–19), Hagar, Abraham's Egyptian servant, was sent away to the wilderness of Beersheba after giving birth to their son Ishmael. There, running out of water, she put her baby under the shadow of a tree "and she went, and sat down apart from him a good way off, as it were a bowshot; for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat apart from him, and lifted up her voice, and wept." But having heard her voice, God sent an angel who called to Hager and pointed her in the direction of a source of water.
Francesco Maffei, a seventeenth-century Venetian artist deeply influenced by the work of Bassano, Tintoretto, and Veronese, painted this subject around 1657, when he left Vicenza for Padua, where he died in 1660. First published by Pallucchini in 1981, the canvas is stylistically close to Maffei's 1657 "Visitation" for the high altar of the Oratorio dei Proti in Vicenza (Rossi 1991). Maffei depicts Hagar, richly dressed in red and gold brocade, kneeling under two trees, while the baby Ishmael is behind her, in shadow. The statuesque angel appears to her on the right, pointing to the source of water that will save her life. Another painting of the same subject, now in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan (Rossi 1991, p. 94, no. 37), is a later autograph version by Maffei.
Rossi, following Pilo's proposal (Giuseppe Maria Pilo, "Carpioni", Venice, 1961, p. 38), suggests that Maffei may have based his composition on Giulio Carpioni's engraving of the "Agony in the Garden", where the figure of Christ, kneeling in front of two trees, is similar to Hagar in both the MMA and Milan paintings.