The Rape of Tamar, Eustache Le Sueur (French, Paris 1616–1655 Paris), Oil on canvas

The Rape of Tamar

Eustache Le Sueur (French, Paris 1616–1655 Paris)
probably ca. 1640
Oil on canvas
74 1/2 x 63 1/2 in. (189.2 x 161.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, 1984
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 617
The painting represents Tamar being raped by her brother, Amnon. According to II Samuel 13:1–22, Amnon, a son of David, fell in love with his sister Tamar, and with a friend conceived of a ruse whereby he feigned illness and requested his sister attend him. When alone, he turned on her and raped her. Overcome with revulsion for what he had done, he then had her expulsed from the bedchamber. Their brother Absalom discovered the deed and had Amnon slain. This picture was painted when Le Sueur was still deeply influenced by his teacher, Simon Vouet.
When this canvas appeared at public auction in 1983, it was catalogued as a painting of Tarquin and Lucretia from the circle of Simon Vouet. Almost immediately, however, it was recognized as an early work by Vouet’s student Le Sueur, and the identification of the subject was questioned. The facial types and palette are characteristic of Le Sueur. On the other hand, the energetic poses of the almost lifesize figures, set before a heavily draped canopy bed, recall Vouet’s compositions of the 1620s, such as his lost painting of the Death of Lucretia, known from an engraving by Claude Mellan (The Met, 45.97(76); see Additional Images, fig. 1). The affinity with Vouet suggests a fairly early date in Le Sueur’s career, probably while he was still working in Vouet’s studio (ca. 1632–42).

At first glance, the painting appears to represent the rape of the virtuous Roman matron Lucretia. Yet according to Livy (History of Rome 1.58), Tarquin threatened to slay Lucretia’s male servant and, if she did not submit to him, to declare that he had discovered them together in bed. The servant in the present painting is a young woman, not a man; moreover, it is unclear why the rapist holds a cup in his left hand. An alternative subject is the story of Amnon and Tamar, a rare Old Testament subject that calls for nude figures. Amnon, who had fallen in love with his half-sister Tamar, told his father, King David, that he was ill and requested that she prepare his food. When they were alone, he then coerced her to sleep with him, but overcome with revulsion for what he had done, he then forced her to leave him (2 Samuel 13:1–22). The preparation of a meal may explain the presence of the cup and the overturned urn of water in the foreground. The Bible also speaks of Tamar’s “garment of divers colors,” which accords with the woman’s ocher dress and blue mantle. But there is no mention of a dagger. Indeed, in the few known depictions of Tamar and Amnon, artists such as Guercino (National Gallery of Art, Washington) portray the most unusual element of the story, Amnon repudiating Tamar after he had slept with her. The flailing arms and violent action in Le Sueur’s painting recall the Rape of Lucretia that Titian (ca. 1485/90?–1576) painted in 1571 for Philip II of Spain (now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Le Sueur might have seen the workshop version of it in the collection of Cardinal Mazarin (now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux) or Cornelis Cort’s engraving after the original (The Met, 49.97.539).

Although the original destination of the painting is unknown, it likely formed part of a decorative cycle installed in the wainscoting of a room in a Parisian townhouse. The fluted pilasters of the painted architecture recall the grandiloquent interiors of the buildings of Louis Le Vau (1612–1670), the architect of the Hôtel Lambert, for which Le Sueur would later produce some of his finest works.

[2011; adapted from Fahy 2005]
Jean-Baptiste François Nourri, Paris (until d. 1784; his estate sale, J. Folliot and F. Delalande, experts, Hôtel de Bullion, Paris, February 24, 1785, no. 104, as by Eustache Le Sueur, "Une composition de trois figures dans un intérieur enrichi d'architecture; l'on voir sur le devant une femme assise à qui un soldat présente une coupe d'une main, & tient de l'autre un poignard. Ce Tableau fait dans l'École du Vouet, porte 71 pouces de haut, sur 57 pouces six lignes de larges. T.," for 400 livres to Folliot); private collection (until 1983; sale, Christie's, London, December 2, 1983, no. 45, as "Tarquin and Lucretia," by the Circle of Simon Vouet, for £108,000 to Stair Sainty Matthiesen); [Stair Sainty Matthiesen, New York, and Colnaghi, New York, 1983–84; sold to MMA]

Alain Mérot. Letter to Guy Stair Sainty. April 30, 1984, considers it a work of Le Sueur's youth, painted between 1636 and 1638, at the time of his apprenticeship to Vouet.

Keith Christiansen in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1984–1985. New York, 1985, pp. 24–25, ill., considers the picture an early work of Le Sueur, probably executed while he was still in Vouet's shop; identifies the subject as the Rape of Tamar rather than Tarquin and Lucretia, but concedes that neither story can account for the raised cup and overturned urn; notes that athough we do not know the original location for which the picture was conceived, it was likely a specific room in a grand Parisian "hôtel".

Alain Mérot. Eustache Le Sueur (1616–1655). Paris, 1987, pp. 1, 33, 168, 336, no. 11, colorpl. 1, fig. 2, ascribes it to Le Sueur, done in Vouet’s atelier under his supervision around 1636–38 and with the probable collaboration of other assistants, noting that the caryatids, in particular, are part of Vouet’s decorative vocabulary; suggests this picture may be identical with one attributed to the circle of Vouet at the Nourri sale (Paris, Febuary 24, 1785, no. 104); credits Alistair Laing with the identification of the subject as the Rape of Tamar; observes that the picture is unpublished.

Daniëlle O. Kisluk-Grosheide. "A State Bedchamber in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Antiques 133 (March 1988), colorpls. IV, VII, illustrates it hanging on the wall in the Louis XIV bedroom at the Metropolitan Museum.

Colnaghi in America: A Survey to Commemorate the First Decade of Colnaghi New York. Ed. Nicholas H. J. Hall. New York, 1992, p. 131, lists it among paintings sold by Colnaghi in North American public collections.

Alain Mérot. Eustache Le Sueur (1616–1655). reprint, with an addendum. Paris, 2000, pp. 1, 33, 168, 336, no. 11, colorpl. 1, fig. 2.

Everett Fahy in The Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 141–43, no. 39, ill. (color).

Keith Christiansen in Philippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 34.