What Wilt Thou?

Caleb and Achsah, Judges 1:14-15Achsah, descending gracefully from her donkey, is greeted by her father Caleb, who reaches a hand out towards the verdant hills in the background and asks her, “What wilt thou?” He has just promised Achsah to his nephew Othniel as wife, his prize for conquering the south Canaan city of Kirjathsepher. To her father Achsah replies that, having been gifted land in the south, she would also like “springs of water” as a marriage present. Her father obliges.

A biblical footnote, to be sure, culled from the first chapter of the Old Testament Book of Judges and put to canvas sometime in the late 18th century by the Royal Academy-trained English artist Henry Singleton (1766–1839). Singleton was a prolific painter of history and genre subjects, and his paintings were commonly reproduced and distributed widely as mezzotints. His composition of this obscure biblical passage — which places Caleb and his daughter slightly off-center in front of a donkey and a servant, flanked by a maid to the left and a man, likely Othniel, to the right — got just such a treatment, and was copied often by engravers in the early 19th century. At the Jewish Museum, there even exists a rough and folksy copy (likely of one of these copies) by the otherwise-unknown American artist Caroline Innis.

The version in the Chapin Library’s collection — a large, ebullient rendition of Singleton’s composition painted on paper — is slightly more primitive than Innis’s copy, though no less charming. The Chapin artist, notably, has simplified or outright changed some of the more difficult elements of the scene, namely the furrowed plain in the background, which has become a placid lake complete with tiny boaters. While certain elements of these two vernacular versions are strikingly similar (the coloring of the robes, an S-shaped fold in Caleb’s vestments, a bottom margin where the biblical passage is scrawled), one divergence suggests that they may have been copied from different sources: in Innis’s painting, the donkey’s sagging ears and broad head in three-quarter profile correspond to two near-identical copies by British engravers James Godby (1767–1849) and William Henry Mote (1803–1871); in the Chapin Library version, the beast’s vertical ears, sloping neck, and slender face (though in profile rather than frontal) are more similar to a version by Italian engraver Alessandro Zaffonato (c. 1780–c. 1835). Still, these two painted copies are more similar to each other than to any of the engraved versions, and in their rich colors, blockish formal reductions, and earnest simplicity are delightful colloquialisms after Singleton’s original.

Troy Sherman, Grad Art ’21