George Segal’s Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael (1987) is on view for the first time since a complete restoration. Segal first began making plaster casts from live models in 1961 and was known for his figurative sculptures throughout his career. The hyperrealism of these works renders the figures familiar and emotionally resonant. He did a series of works based on biblical stories, all from the Book of Genesis, including Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael.
The sculpture examines a dilemma faced by the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. In this story, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, seeks to secure her son Isaac’s right of inheritance by demanding that her husband expel his mistress Hagar and their first-born son Ishmael from their home. Abraham, upon receiving divine promise of Hagar and Ishmael’s safety, reluctantly banishes them to the desert and possible death. The father’s tenderness, Sarah’s rage, and Hagar’s resigned acceptance portray a diverse range of human emotions. The story can be said to contain the Biblical roots of today’s Arab-Israeli conflict, since the Jews reputedly descend from Isaac and Muslims from the exiled Ishmael. The life-size pieces invite the viewer in as a participant in the drama of an enforced farewell. Moving around the figures, one can experience the psychological dynamics of this traumatic story. Unlike many of Segal’s previous plaster sculptures, this work is painted a dark and somber gray. These colors contribute to the overall feeling of sadness conveyed in the piece.