'Elijah in the Wilderness' is inspired by an episode from the Old Testament described in 1 Kings, chapter 19, verses 4 – 7. Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel who is determined to kill him. He went for a day’s journey into the desert, sat beneath a tree and asked that he might die. In this painting, he is asleep in the wilderness and an angel from God is bringing him bread and water, to sustain him on his subsequent journey of forty days. The angel seems to have just landed. His splendid wings are still extended. The prophet, whose muscled body contrasts with the fluttering draperies of the angel, sleeps on as the angel looks down on him.
Although this picture did not arrive in Liverpool until 1879, after first being exhibited in Paris, it was specially commissioned for the Walker Art Gallery in the year that it opened, 1877. The man who responsible was the local wealthy chemical manufacturer Andrew Kurtz (1825 - 1890). He had decided that the Gallery should have a painting by the most celebrated and successful British painter of the late nineteenth century and so commissioned Frederic Leighton.
According to his diaries, Kurtz had wanted a picture from Leighton ‘…dealing with female beauty’ but he eventually left the subject for the Walker picture entirely for the artist to decide. Leighton wrote to tell him that the subject was to be the Angel feeding Elijah and that the figures were to be life-size, with the picture measuring 7 feet by 8 feet.