This highly finished drawing represents the Biblical story of Abraham and the Three Angels (Genesis 18: 1-33), set in a typically Dutch landscape. On the right of the drawing, beneath the tree, the angels receive Abraham's hospitality, still in their disguise of simple travellers. They reveal themselves to Abraham on the bridge in the foreground, where he implores them to spare his town of Sodom if ten honest citizens can be found. A canal recedes into the distance, with a vanishing point just to the right of the church spire on the horizon, a village lies among the trees on the left bank. The drawing has been cut along the lower edge, where a trimmed signature can be seen beneath the upturned boat at the side of the thatched cottage in the foreground: the remains of the upright stroke of a 'b', 'l' or 'h'.
The drawing can be linked to four others by Hans Bol which, taken together, offer a valuable insight into the artist's working methods. The earliest of the drawings is a silverpoint study in the British Museum, which appears on the verso of a view of Antwerp seen from the Scheldt (Popham, op. cit.). Although silverpoint was an unusual medium to use for plein air studies, the drawing gives the impression of having been drawn from life. It is even inscribed with the name of the place shown: 'Delft ghouw', which refers to the village of Delfgauw near Delft, now absorbed into the suburbs of the city. The right half of the present drawing corresponds to the British Museum sheet: indeed, since the latter would have formed the right-hand page of an open sketchbook, it is very likely that there once existed a left-hand page which extended the composition as seen in the left part of the present drawing. Certain changes have been made between the British Museum drawing and the present work. Most obviously, the figures have been added on the bridge, but the landscape on the left bank of the canal is subtly different: in the British Museum silverpoint, a foreground cottage is succeeded by an open meadow in the mid-ground, giving way to further buildings on the horizon. The present drawing keeps the cottage and meadow, but moves both back into the mid-ground, beyond a side canal, and introduces a new rank of buildings in the foreground.
The British Museum composition was re-used in a bodycolour of Abraham and the Three Angels in Dresden, which is dated 1586 (inv. 826). Bol added staffage and the episodes from the Biblical story, but the landscape itself (at least in foreground and mid-ground) remains faithful to the silverpoint, without the added buildings which appear in the present drawing. However, the background of the Dresden bodycolour departs from the British Museum sheet: the addition of a lock-gate on the canal and a large church with a spire at the vanishing point corresponds much more closely to the present drawing. Like the silverpoint, the Dresden bodycolour shows only the right half of the composition as seen in the present drawing: it is tempting to wonder whether it too has been cut and originally extended further to the left.
The present drawing introduces marked compositional changes from both the British Museum silverpoint and the Dresden bodycolour: not only in the addition of the extra buildings in the foreground, but in moving the scene of Abraham's hospitality from the left-hand side of the canal to the right. Bol then replicated this composition, split in half down the centre, in a pair of bodycolours which are now in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard. One shows Abraham and the Three Angels (inv. 2004.75; Fig. 2), which corresponds to the right-hand side of the present drawing and was formerly sold at Christie's, New York, 11-12 January 1995, lot 215; the other, which shows a village with trees and a church corresponding to the left side of the present drawing, had already entered the Museum's collection by a different route (inv. 2001.54; Fig. 1). Stefaan Hautekeete has noted that, if Bol intended the two Fogg bodycolours to be separate, then this is the only evidence we have of his using one preparatory drawing for two final compositions. On the other hand, considering the similarities of the two bodycolours' dimensions (both circa 11 x 15 cm.), it is possible that they originally formed one uninterrupted composition, which would have replicated the present drawing and may once again indicate that a lost left-hand page extended the landscape seen in the British Museum silverpoint.
A date of around 1585 seems appropriate for the present drawing. Mr Hautekeete has observed that it cannot postdate 1586, which is the date of the Dresden bodycolour.