Artwork of the Week: June 7, 2021
Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-1880), Esther, 1850, oil on canvas, 41 1/4 x 30 3/4 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funding provided by Thomas R. and Diane Stevenson Stone, 2017.
The Old Testament tells of Queen Esther, a Jewish woman who was divinely placed to save her people from destruction. In this painting, Esther stands in the Persian royal court, preparing to address her husband, King Ahasuerus, and appeal for the Jewish people. She stares ahead, pale but resolute, bolstered by her two attendants. The columns, decorated with scenes of peoples
enslaved by the mighty Persian kings, reinforce the potential fate of the Jews. The artist’s inclusion of exotic details – the ornate incense burner, intricate textiles, and tilework – reflects popular interest in the Middle East during the 19 th century.
This retelling of Esther’s heroism aimed to inspire women as purveyors of righteousness. O’Neil depicts an idealized contemporary woman posing as the ancient heroine dressed in elaborate Victorian costume. Esther’s courageous sacrifice reinforced 19th – century dialogues of women as selfless protectors of family and faith.