Based on Old Testament subject (I Samuel 28)
Allston captures the moment (described in 1 Samuel 28:7-14) when the Witch of Endor raises Samuel, whom she alone can see, and whose presence alerts her to Saul’s trickery. The spirit will inform Saul of his impending death in battle, and will predict the triumph of the Philistines over the Israelites. In an era shadowed by war, the subject must have held special resonance: Allston’s rendition belongs to a distinguished sequence including examples by Benjamin West, William Blake, Henry Fuseli, William Sidney Mount, and others. As Bjelajac has argued, Allston’s earliest viewers may have interpreted his painting both as a reminder that Americans owed their second victory over the British to the will of God, and as a mockery of the pretensions of Bonaparte.
Washington Allston captured here an Old Testament scene described in I Samuel 28:7–14: prompted by Israel’s King Saul, shown cowering at right, the columnar and frightful Witch of Endor has conjured the spirit of the prophet Samuel. Notwithstanding his own criminalization of witchcraft and necromancy, the king has sought the witch’s assistance at a moment of crisis, as he prepares to confront the formidable Philistine army and fears (rightfully) that he has fallen from God’s favor. Samuel will inform Saul of his impending death in battle and foretell the triumph of the Philistines over the Israelites. Preceded by renowned versions of the subject by Salvator Rosa and Benjamin West (which Allston likely knew), the painting, which tells of the end of an old, established order, must have been personally meaningful to its first owner, Thomas Handasyd Perkins. A prominent Boston Brahmin and Federalist, Perkins witnessed the dramatic diminishing of his party’s political and cultural fortunes during James Monroe’s presidency.
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