'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 which sustained him on his subsequent journey of forty days. The angel seems to have just landed. His splendid wings are still extended. The prophet, his magnificently muscled body contrasting with the fluttering draperies of the angel, sleeps on as the angel looks down on him.
Although this picture did not arrive in the gallery until 1879, after first being exhibited in Paris, it was specifically commissioned for the Walker Art Gallery in the year that it opened, 1877. The man who commissioned it was a local wealthy chemical manufacturer, Andrew Kurtz (1825 - 1890). He had decided that the gallery should have a painting by perhaps the most celebrated and successful British painter of the late nineteenth century, Sir 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, that the figures were to be life-size and that the picture would measure 7 feet by 8 feet.