This print is one of many etchings executed by Leon Kossoff in response to, and literally in the presence of, oil paintings by old masters; in this case Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well, circa 1650-55, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Tate owns the only artist’s proof of this print.
Poussin’s inspiration for Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well comes from the Book of Genesis. Abraham, wishing to find a wife for his son Isaac, sent his servant Eliezer to look for a suitable bride among his own kindred in Mesopotamia, rather than among the people of Canaan where he lived. Eliezer reached Aram Naharayim and stopped at the well, a location where people would meet. He prayed to God for guidance, asking that He should send him a woman who would respond to his request for water and would also water his camels, without being asked. This proved to be Rebecca, who was related to Abraham through his brother Nahor. She invited Eliezer to drink from her jar, and drew water for his camels. Eliezer gave her his presents of gold and received hospitality at her parents' house. He then took her back to Canaan.
Poussin depicts the moment that Rebecca, being the only woman at the well to offer him water, is recognised by Eliezer as the object of his search. The events surrounding this meeting take place against a rocky hillside scattered with buildings. Kossoff’s response to this painting was to reduce the composition to its essential components. The buildings have been concentrated into a few block-like central forms. Eliezer is to the right of Kossoff’s print, bowing to Rebecca, who holds a bowl from which he drinks. To the far right stands Eliezer’s attendant. The other figures are women who are collecting water in vessels which they are balancing on their heads for transportation. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Poussin’s original. Aquatint has been used to animate and to bring spatial depth to the composition. It also serves to highlight Eliezer’s stooping form as well as the rhythms of the women’s bodies and the plinth that stands to the side of the well. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Poussin’s painting, nor does it seek to transcribe, copy or paraphrase it. Rather, it acknowledges the gulf that separates it from the pictorial culture of former times and reveals his desire to find points of contact with Poussin. Kossoff has described the value of this kind of draughtsmanship as a means to building up an acquaintance with the subject of a picture made by another artist until he feels free to ‘move about in its imaginative spaces’ (Kendall, p.19).
Kossoff has described the moment of intense elation, which occurred some forty years ago, when he first established a vital connection with Poussin’s art. As a youth and then as a student in London, he had become familiar with the rich historical collections of the National Gallery. One day he had a transformative experience while looking at Poussin’s Cephalus and Aurora, 1629-30 (National Gallery, London):
It seemed as though I was experiencing the work for the first time. I suppose there is a difference between looking and experiencing. Paintings of this quality, in which the subject is endlessly glowing with luminosity, can, in an unexpected moment, surprise the viewer, revealing unexplored areas of self.
The recent prints made by Kossoff after paintings by Poussin therefore emerge from almost half a century of involvement with Poussin’s oeuvre, initially stimulated by this moment of insight at the National Gallery but more immediately by the 1995 retrospective exhibition, Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
The etching plates were prepared by Ann Dowker, a London artist who later collaborated with Kossoff on biting the plates with acid, wiping them before printing, and making trial proofs. In some cases, areas of the etchings were washed with aquatint; in others, lines were emphasised by drypoint. The etchings were printed by Mark Balakjian at Studio Prints, London.
Richard Kendall, Drawn to Painting, London 2000, pp.33, 37, reproduced p.73 in colour
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995