The Samaritan Woman at the Well

by Zenaida

dewey_woman_at_the_wellensignlpnfo-o-24b2I recently came across Simon Dewey’s painting of the woman at the well entitled Living Water. This was not the woman I remembered from art I’d seen previously. I pulled my copy of Carl Bloch’s Samaritan Woman out of storage for comparison. Dewey’s Samaritan is seated at his feet in an attitude of humility and deference, engrossed, with the tools of her task ignored at the side of the well. Her vessel becomes a receptacle for living waters rather than the waters of the well. It’s very idyllic. Every pose and facial expression is idealized: magnanimous generosity, rapt adoration fixated on every word, warm colors give it a golden glow.

By the way, were there palm trees in Samaria? I doubt it had the European idyllic look from Bloch’s painting. I’m curious to know what the actual landscape might have looked like.

Carl Bloch’s Samaritan is posed in the act of drawing her water vessel from the well and listens to Christ speak from his place in the shade as she goes about her task. Perhaps she looks a bit incredulous as He reveals her own past to her. She seems very real to me. Christ also seems very real, even with the halo that symbolizes His divinity.

My question is this: Is this piece representative of attitudes toward women or about women? Has this changed over time within art pieces used or commissioned by or associated with the church? Is art reflective of culture? Or does it influence culture? Both, perhaps?

Carl Bloch has received acknowledgement in the last several years for his influence in the LDS faith. Prints of his paintings are still distributed by the church as visual teaching aids, and many works hang in our church buildings. He along with Bertel Thorvaldsen have largely shaped the aesthetic of our religion since the 1960’s.

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  1. stacer says:

    Ack! I forgot to fill in my name and it lost my comment.

    What I think I said was that I really love the story of the woman at the well, and I ponder a lot from time to time whether I am able to come back to the Savior and listen to all he had to tell me. The gathering everyone in my town to come listen to a man who knew all I ever did is the harder part, of course.

    But my feeling on the painting: I’m not so sure it’s a gendered rendering. It makes me wonder what Dewey would have done (or perhaps has done) with the subject of the ten lepers, of whom the one who turned back was a man. He’d probably very obviously darken the light around the nine and bathe the Savior and the one in that same golden light.

    I do like the golden light, actually–it gives a great sense of sunset–but at the same time it also kind of feels like the Dutch masters went crazy with the shiny.

    I think I prefer the expression on Bloch’s Samaritan woman, though. She’s world-weary. She’s had four (five? I can’t remember) husbands and probably has a lot of kids to take care of. She’s probably jaded and worried. She has a lot on her mind so when yet another man asks her for something, she thinks, “What does he *really* want of me?”

    And when he tells her about living waters, the miracle she feels in her soul… I think that Bloch’s painting catches her right on the cusp of that.

  2. Caroline says:

    Lost my comment too! Ugh.

    I just said that I prefer the Bloch one. The Jesus in the Dewey painting is positioned higher and has an authoritative demeanor, which contrasts sharply with the woman’s lowered position and adoring demeanor.

    The Bloch painting strikes me as more egalitarian. Jesus is actually positioned lower and it appears as if they might be listening to one another, rather than just the woman listing to him. Of course, he does have the halo, so I think that serves to lift him up a bit figuratively.

    Zenaida, do you know what year the Bloch painting was done, verses the Dewey painting? If the Bloch painting was done in the 60’s or early 70’s, before the full swing of correlation took Relief Society’s autonomy away, it makes sense that male and female were portrayed more as equals. In our post correlation world, our Relief Society is a shadow of what it used to be in earlier generations, when it was considered to be a companion to priesthood quorums.

    Also, in regards to positioning…. someone did a study of recent images in the Ensign and noted that in nearly every family image, the man was positioned higher than the woman, and that he would often be speaking or teaching while she looked up at him. The Dewey painting certainly follows that trend.

  3. Vada says:

    To me the contrast between the women in the paintings seems very like the contrast between Mary and Martha in the story of the Savior’s teachings. One woman is stopping her daily tasks to listen raptly to what the Savior has to teach her (and I don’t mind a little adoration and being lower; it is Christ after all). The other woman has a lot to do, and is world weary and trying to provide for everyone else. She might not be able to stop and give her full attention to the Savior, but she listens to him as she goes about her essential (if not pretty) work. (And to clarify, I think both positions/attitudes are to be admired.)

  4. stacer says:

    Vada, I agree. I think these two paintings can be thought of catching two different moments in time–the first, when she’s first meeting the Savior, and the second, after she has come back from town telling everyone about Him and come to believe that He is the source of living waters.

    Now, Dewey’s is definitely more in an illustrative tradition than a fine art one, I believe, though I am no art historian.

  5. Melanie2 says:

    Caroline,
    I don’t know the year of this specific painting, but Bloch lived from 1834-1890. While his work has been embraced by the Church in recent decades, his work is much older than that.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    Great post. Although not specifically focused on the woman at the well story, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar focuses a lot on art and the female divine. I highly recommend it. In fact, if you’re in Phoenix on the 19th, we’re studying it for our feminist book group.
    I really do like this story, though. The fact that Jesus spent so much time and energy with women in a culture that did not seem to value them as highly as men, is very comforting to me.
    I’d like to think that comfort is what God wants to send me right now.
    Thank you.

  7. Zenaida says:

    stacer, I glanced through some of his other prints, and Dewey does not use much more of the golden light, from the few I looked at. The work is definitely an illustration. That is his background.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “shiny” Dutch masters, unless it’s the halo? This has been the standard way of portraying divinity in a person since the early church, and only recently stopped appearing as much.
    I wonder if either artist had a specific person in mind when painting their subjects.

    Caroline, As Melanie mentioned, Bloch was a 19th century artist, and Simon Dewey is still producing art today.
    I guess I prefer Bloch’s painting because I also like the egalitarian stance. There very fact that he took time to speak to this woman, a Samaritan woman no less, was significant. Would she have seen him as a divine being or an inspired prophet?
    I’ve seen paintings of Mary and Martha, and even when Mary is portrayed as being at the Savior’s feet, she is upright and intent. To me, Dewey’s Samaritan, leaning in and having to look far upward becomes less realistic to me.

    Do you have an resources on that study about women appearing in Ensign images?

    The amazing thing about art is that it is meant to be interpreted. I really appreciate the different interpretations you’ve offered.

  8. S.Faux says:

    For a LDS theological perspective of this story, see: “Woman at Jacob’s Well.” Also, this post shows a beautiful rendition painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.

  9. stacer says:

    Zenaida, by “shiny” I meant Dewey’s prolific use of gold compared to the ability the Dutch masters had to make light shine forth from a painting in much more subtle ways.

    Vermeer, for example, could bring in the light from a window and just let it play over his subject. It’s beautiful. It feels like the Dewey painting is doing something similar, but much less subtle. I love looking at the way light plays in the Dewey picture, actually–it looks like it’s a photo taken at twilight (and in fact is much more photorealistic in the subjects than the Bloch painting) but I prefer how Bloch is more subtle with light when using it to depict the holiness of the Savior.

    Some examples of Vermeer’s work can be found here, here, and here.

  10. Lauren says:

    Hey, months-long lurker, first time commenter here.

    I’ve got to admit to a major personal bias. I cannot stand Simon Dewey paintings. Before one of my companions on my mission was transferred she cut out all the Simon Dewey work from the billions of Ensigns we had in the apartment and hid them all over. I was finding them (and cringing) for months. I love the Bloch painting (I love most of the Blochs, though)because it reminds me of Christ’s telling the disciples that the greatest among them should be the servant (ish). The figure of Christ isn’t necessarily physically commanding, but he seems much more intent on the woman, much more connected. In the Dewey piece, I don’t see that same connection. His gestures seem almost patronizing. Just like Zenaida said, it’s idealized, and that rubs me the wrong way. I want a Christ who “gets” real life.

  11. Caroline says:

    Hi Lauren,
    That was one of my beefs also with the Dewey – Jesus looks too buff with those huge shoulders and unnaturally straight spine.

  12. cupcakegirl says:

    I think that these two interpretations have a lot to say about attitudes toward women. I’ve struggled with Simon Dewey’s work because it definitely supports sanitized, idealized views of LDS history and theology. His work is very nice but something about his work is lacking as truly great art. Looking at his work makes me feel the same way as looking at mass produced images of the temple. It’s just kind of generic and doesn’t really move me. He’s a solid painter, but not a real maestro.

    Dewey’s version is *very* LDS. The woman is below the man, and is clearly thrilled to be receiving information by someone who is above her. You see exactly the same things — weak, passive, helpless females submerged below a stunningly benevolent male — in his paintings “Touch of Faith” and “Why Weepest Thou.” Bloch, a Danish Protestant, shows a very different attitude, with the woman happening upon Christ and as he teaches her he doesn’t talk down to her. His gesture and position is inviting, not authoritative. It’s a much more Protestant (and in particular Scandinavian Protestant) attitude.

    The biggest problem I’ve had with Dewey’s work is that it supports a view of Mormonism that never really was but implies that it’s real. His portrait of Joseph Smith is a little to Aryan looking for my taste (as an adult Smith was not blonde, as contemporary portaits show) and his painting “By the Gift and Power of God” is very, very problematic and misleading. The method by which the gold plates were translated is a touchy topic, and all of the descriptions we have from Joseph Smith and those close to him never described him translating by actually reading from the plates, sitting at a table like a scholar with the original text. The painting perpetuates a false idea that a lot of people have and is awkward at best, dangerous at worst.

  13. Zenaida says:

    I would like to know how much of Dewey’s art is being consumed by the LDS audience.
    I sometimes worry about putting too many words in the artist’s mouth, but I find it significant the artistic view moves farther and farther from the factual details of the story to an idealized version that better fits our agenda. I can’t imagine artists other than those for “South Park” illustrating Joseph with his face in a hat. The details move to satire and we are left with metaphor.

    Another sidenote, I would like to submit for comparrison two other works by Dewey entitled, “Ye Are the Light of the World,” and “Let Your Light So Shine.” The first portrays a male child standing at Jesus’ side watching the flame as Christ gazes down at the boy. The second shows a female child sitting in his lap with wide eyes looking up at Christ while _He_ gazes at the lamp in front of her. The female requires protection and must be encouraged to enshrine all feminine virtues and spirituality we are told we have. The male must be prepared to be the shining example and go forth into the world.

  14. Zenaida says:

    Also, stacer, thanks for those links to Vermeer’s work. They are absolutely stunning.

  15. Bree says:

    Great post, Zenaida. My thoughts on the Dewey painting are similar to Caroline and cupcakegirl’s, so I won’t rehash. I had no idea the Bloch painting was so old and illuminating the differences with Dewey’s recent painting is really disturbing to me.

    Threadjack: Does anyone else remember the June 2007 Ensign? I remember pulling it out of the mailbox and the cover article was called “Women of the New Testament”. I thought it was an answer to prayer until I opened it up to find there wasn’t an article about Women in the New Testament, but rather a collection of “mormon art” depictions of New Testament women, including the Dewey painting above. I was so mad I threw the Ensign across the room 🙂

    Jessawhy…I’m not in town on the 19th, but would love to hear more about your feminist book group in phoenix.

  16. Zenaida says:

    Bree, I understand that feeling.
    I did go back and look at the Ensign article you mentioned, and I think I could be a fan of Liz Lemon Swindle. I also liked Walter Rane’s Mary and Martha.
    BTW, I have loved Minerva Teichert’s “Jesus at the Home of Mary and Martha” for a long time now.

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