A tale of feminine bravery over male aggression hangs in Sunderland Museum’s Victorian Gallery

A tale of feminine bravery over male aggression hangs in Sunderland Museum’s Victorian Gallery

The painting of ‘Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahasuerus’ in Sunderland Museum’s permanent Victorian collection appears as if it is a mise-en-scene from a Hollywood biblical epic. Esther, risking her own life, turns dramatically to point an accusing finger at Haman, who has plotted to convince King Ahasuerus that all the Jews in Ancient Persia should be killed.

The paintings composition makes for great drama. King Ahasuerus in the shadowy background, Esther and Haman in the bright foreground; Esther twisting dramatically with an accusing stare and pointed finger, while Haman cowering with a look of fear, brings his hands up to his head as if to protect himself from the inevitable. The use of bright colours and rich detail in the clothing and furnishings all add to the visual impact of this biblical epic.

Ernest Normand, a notable Victorian painter, also painted portraits as well as historical and narrative subjects but specialised in dramatic scenes from ancient history that were often inspired by the Old Testament. Some of this work such as ‘Vashti Deposed’, ‘The Bitter Draught of Slavery’, ‘The White Slave’ and ‘Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahasuerus’ could be said to touch on questions of the subjugation of the female or the power play between the sexes. His work was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and some of his paintings include nudes for which today he may be accused of an excess of sensuality.

Ernest Normand was married to Henrietta Rae a painter in her own right whose work is also part of Sunderland Museum’s collections. Henrietta Rae painted in a similar style to that of her husband but does not seem to have met with the same success or the acceptance of a male dominated artistic society.

The image is ‘Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahasuerus’ circa 1888, oil on canvas by Ernest Normand (1857-1923) and is owned by Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens and on permanent display in their Victorian Gallery.

View more paintings by Ernest Normand.

View more paintings by Henrietta Rae.

Find out more about Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens.


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Mowbray Park in Sunderland city centre is one of the oldest parks in the North East. Restored to its former Victorian splendour, it has an intriguing array of art works.


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