This drawing, hitherto only known from its mention in the catalogue of the Lempereur sale in 1773 (see Provenance), is a complete and highly finished study for La Hyre’s picture a the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Reims, inv. 979.11 (fig. 1; see P. Rosenberg and J. Thuillier, Laurent de La Hyre, 1606-1656. L’Homme et l’œuvre, exhib cat., Musée de Grenoble, Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, and Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1989-1990, no. 275, ill.). A chalk drawing in the École des Beaux-Arts (inv. PM 2508; see ibid., no. 273, ill.; and P. Rosenberg in Maîtres français, 1550-1800. Dessins de la donation Mathias Polakovits à l’École des Beaux-Arts, exhib. cat., Paris, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, no. 25, ill.) may be an earlier study for the same painting, although it also contains elements of a canvas of the same subject, but an entirely different format and conception, which appeared at the sale Christie’s, 3 December 1988, lot 35 (Rosenberg and Thuillier, op. cit., no. 272, as attributed to La Hyre). A sketch in black chalk and wash, in which the scene is inscribed in an oval, perhaps related to yet another project, is at the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon, inv. D.2646 (ibid., no. 274, ill.). A contemporary painted copy of the work in Reims is in the Detroit Institute of Arts (inv. 72.36; see ibid., p. 309).
Dated 1650, the picture in Reims counts among the late masterpieces of La Hyre, when his art was at its most personal – ‘measured and perfect, cold but elegant, austere but graceful, simple and learned’ (P. Rosenberg in La Force du dessin. Chefs-d’œuvre de la collection Prat, exhib. cat., Paris, Petit Palais, 2020, p. 44, under no. 17). The painting has been described as ‘a refined poem, in which is told, against the background of a delicate landscape, a spiritual lesson of the highest order – that of the Sacrifice of Abraham’ (Rosenberg and Thuillier, op. cit., p. 309). Both the painting and the present drawing depict with great accuracy the text of Genesis 22, where God puts to the test Abraham’s faith. Abraham has been ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac, and brings the boy to the designated place, where he builds an altar. After having bound his son, Abraham takes a knife, but an angel appears and stops him, explaining: ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad […], for now I know that thou fearest God’ (verse 12). Abraham notices a ram ‘caught in a thicket by his horns’ and kills it instead.
The detail of the ram is among the differences between drawing and painting: in the former, the animal enters the scene at right, while in the painting it appears between the trees behind the altar at left. Another difference is the tree placed by La Hyre behind the angel and Abraham, creating a stronger contrast between the hillock on which the action takes place and the landscape in the background. Like the painting, the drawing exemplifies many of the qualities for which La Hyre’s style is admired: the balanced yet original compositions, the noble gestures and faces of the figures, an austerity softened by the lyrical depiction of the landscape, and an execution both admirable for its technical simplicity and great sophistication. Among the drawings that display the same qualities are some of La Hyre’s most celebrated, including the series depicting the story of Saint Stephen from the mid-1640s at the Louvre (inv. 27499-27515; see Rosenberg and Thuillier, op. cit., nos. 206-228), and Moses transforming the bitter waters at Marahin the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels (inv. 4060/3936; see Rosenberg and Thuillier, op. cit., no. 237, ill.; and P. Rosenberg in Disegno & couleur. Dessins italiens et français du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle, exhib. cat., Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 2012-2014, no. 60, ill.).