From Janet Laisch-
When I look at Angelica Kauffman’s version of Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, I imagine what it would be like to speak with Christ face-to-face as the Samaritan woman did about 2000 years ago. In Kauffman’s depiction, she painted herself as the Samaritan woman. Kauffman’s self portraits resemble the Samaritan woman so much that we may conclude that she identified with her in some significant way. Kauffman was a wealthy upper-middle-class woman who faithfully lived with one husband and began an art career as a child prodigy painting portraits of aristocrats and historical subjects with a moralizing message. She lived in Rome, studied at the Academy and while there learned to revive the harmonizing style of the famous Renaissance painter Raphael in particular. By 1796, she was one of only a few women who sold regularly her historical paintings. For Kauffman, a Neoclassical painter during the Enlightenment period, “reason” overshadowed her faith at times. On the other hand, the Samaritan woman lived in the ancient Roman Empire. After five unsuccessful marriages and while living with a man with whom she was not even married, she met Christ who loved her. Seemingly so opposite, both women were indeed sinners. Both women grappled with their faith. Both women experienced doubt. Christ offered to fill both women with living water so they would never thirst again.
Christ sat and conversed with the Samaritan woman face-to-face and offered her his living water. The story as told from John 4:5-42 reads
“In Samaria he came to a town named Syhar, which was not far from the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by the trip, sat down by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw some water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink of water.” (His disciples had gone into town to buy food.) The woman answered, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan–so how can you ask me for a drink?” (Jews will not use the same cups and bowls that Samaritans use.) Jesus answered, “If you only knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask him, and he would give you life-giving water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get that life-giving water? It was our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well; he and his sons and his flocks all drank from it. You don’t claim to be greater than Jacob, do you?” Jesus answered, “Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring which will provide him with life-giving water and give him eternal life.” “Sir,” the woman said, “give me that water! Then I will never be thirsty again, nor will I have to come here to draw water.” … The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah will come, and when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus answered, “I am he, I who am talking with you.” …Then the woman left her water jar, went back to the town, and said to the people there, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” So they left the town and went to Jesus. …Many of the Samaritans in that town believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I had ever done.”
This faith altering conversation takes place at a well recognizing that without clean water life is not sustaining. Christ invites the woman to sit with him asking her for a drink of water, seemingly disinterested in her lower status as a Samaritan woman. To convey this scene, the artist shows both figures seated on the side of a stone well. A gleaming metal vessel for collecting clean water sits between Christ and the woman symbolizing the woman’s need for tangible evidence over her faith in Christ. Painted on a large scale 4 x 5 foot canvas, Kauffman chose to fill the foreground with life size, realistic, and proportional figures of Christ and the Samaritan woman. When we step in front of this canvas, their conversation is at our eye level so that as voyeurs we can easily watch and eavesdrop their every word. The perspective showing these figures close up allows us to see their expressions, their sustained eye contact, and their gestures.
Kauffman drew graceful lines which impact how we perceive their conversation. From the Bible passage, we learn that Christ already knows everything about her, some facts about which she is not proud. However, Kauffman painted these two people engaged in conversation rather than in an argument. This image appears fluid and graceful in part because of the decisive, fluid lines Kauffman drew under layers of oil paint. If we were to diagram each figure, the lines would be continuous and deliberate without rigidity or agitation so when we look at this painting, we immediately sense calmness about the Samaritan woman’s spiritual awakening. We feel Christ’s love toward this woman and her recognition that he both knows everything about her and loves her. Christ’s confrontation seems meaningful and caring rather than damaging or harmful. Kauffman like other Enlightenment painters depicted subjects that convey a moralizing message through a story derived from history. Kauffman recognized this Biblical story is based on historical fact and provides a moralizing lesson that should be valued equally to other historical paintings.
In addition to drawing graceful lines, Kauffman’s limited realistic color palette conveys a sense of harmony between the figures. Similar to the famous Renaissance painter Raphael, Kauffman used harmonizing hues derived from primary colors: red, blue and gold mixed with black and white to paint the entire canvas; the palette is limited so we immediately accept the canvas as a unified image and it impacts how we understand their shared respect and love. An example of Raphael’s palette can be seen in the image below. Both Christ and the Samaritan woman wear bold red and deep blue, drawing our focus first to them. Christ and the Samaritan woman’s skin share the same rosy hue, similar curly auburn hair and hazel eyes–details which also help us read them as unified pair. In addition, the color of the stone well is in the same color family as the gold vessel and gold sash in the woman’s hair. Rather than a golden halo around Christ’s head, the beautiful natural environment in the background denotes the divine on a monumental scale.
In the background, the artist used a less saturated blue hue for the sky and landscape than the vibrant blue hue used for Christ’s cloak and the woman’s hair sash so it turns our attention back to the figures as the main focus. Kauffman like Raphael painted a harmonious background, suggesting a sense of receding space through atmospheric perspective–the blue, hazy mountain range may represent the outskirts of Rome that so fascinated her and other Neoclassical painters. The mountainous landscape created by God resides with the man-made citadel and they do not look incongruous. This harmonious juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane mirror the harmonious conversation between the divine Christ and the worldly Samaraitan woman.
To further this sense of reality, Kauffman represented the people by capturing realistic portraits, including a portrait of herself as the Samaritan woman. An example of one of Kauffman’s many self portraits can be seen below. Both Christ and the Samaritan woman wear garb typical to ancient Rome, masterfully draped on the figure to reveal convincing three dimensional bodily forms beneath them. Their gestures convey meaning beyond a superficial conversation and their interlocking facial expressions share a level of understanding between them. True to this Biblical passage, Kauffman painted the woman engrossed in conversation with Christ. Kauffman plans a unified composition; their body language communicates that each actively listens to the other. Christ and the woman sit turned toward each other with their knees almost touching. They make eye contact as they speak and listen in turn. By the end of the conversation, she sees the world through Christ’s eyes. She is transformed. Her view of life changes. Christ knows and loves her recognizing that she has great purpose. Her left arm is open; though her left hand may gesture toward Earth and her right arm clutches her worldly possession. Whereas Christ’s left hand points upward and his right hand rests on his heart. She leans toward Christ–presumably open to changing her mind. The woman at the well and Kauffman herself were far from shy or taciturn. Both women acted in society–Kauffman as a portraitist and history painter competing on equal footing with men. The woman at the well–by the end of the story–urgently shared Christ’s message with the entire town which resulted in a huge growth in Christ’s followers. Both women are nonconformists, acting authentically as themselves.
Kauffman who studied Raphael’s work also borrowed symbolic gestures from his School of Athens for great purpose. A detail is shown below. In this painting, Raphael juxtaposed two philosophers: Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right whose opposing views can be summarized through hand gesture, much like Christ on the left and the Samaritan woman on the right. Plato points up because in his philosophy the changing world that we see around us is just a shadow of a higher, truer reality that is eternal and includes goodness and beauty. For Plato, this otherworldly reality is the ultimate reality, and the seat of all truth, beauty, justice, and wisdom. Whereas Aristotle holds his hand down, since in his philosophy, the only reality is the reality that we can see and experience by sight and touch precisely the reality dismissed by Plato. Aristotle’s Ethics–the book that he holds–emphasized the relationships, justice, friendship, and government of the human world and the need to study it. Kauffman painted Christ pointing up, similar to Plato’s hand, suggesting that Christ references the eternal unchanging world whereas the woman’s hands match more closely to Aristotle’s hands suggesting that she focused on what could be seen.
From John’s Biblical account of this story, we know that Christ’s love transformed her. The woman felt so deeply loved that she needed to speak about what Christ had shared with her. She told everyone in town about the Messiah–the eternal, unchanging Christ she had met at the well. As a result she helped spread Christ’s message so more people could drink his Living water.