The subject comes from the Book of Samuel (Chapter 25). Nabal, a farmer in Maon, tended his sheep around the village of Carmel in Judah, an area that was protected by David and his followers against outside marauders. When David tried to solicit his neighbour's help and support, Nabal sent a brusque refusal that so insulted David he gathered four hundred of his men to annihilate Nabal and his entire household. Hearing of this, Nabal's wife, Abigail, 'a woman of good understanding and of beautiful countenance', went to meet David with a peace offering of food and drink. Her offer was graciously received and David disarmed his men. On learning of the danger that his wife had averted, Nabal suffered a stroke and died ten days later. Abigail thereupon became one of David's wives.
To Francken's audience, Abigail was seen as a paragon of diplomacy and prudence and as a champion of peace. The subject represented a theme for which Francken had a special liking. At least eight different, mostly cabinet-sized, pictures of this subject are recorded, all varying in their composition and detail, but all focused on the emotionally charged meeting betwen the two protagonists (see U. Härting, Frans Francken der Jüngere, Freren, 1989, pp. 243-5, nos. 61-67). The inspiration was very likely provided by Rubens's large-scale treatment of the subject (canvas, 123 x 228 cm.; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), which lays out the basic pictorial design adopted by Francken. D'Hulst and Vandenven date the Rubens by virtue of its 'light touch and delicate colouring, as well as the expressive faces and gestures' to circa 1630 (R.-A. D'Hulst and M. Vandenven, Rubens - The Old Testament, Corpus Rubenianum, III, p. 133, under no. 41), the same year of the earliest known dated treatment by Francken.
This unpublished work is by far the most significant treatment of the subject by Francken, coming close in scale to Rubens's canvas, and being one of the largest panel paintings in his oeuvre (only the Allegory recently sold at the Dorotheum, Vienna, 21 April 2010, lot 5, 142 x 210cm., appears to be on a comparable scale). The elaborate, multi-figural composition consists broadly of two contrasting halves. On one side is Abigail kneeling in a glimmering silk dress, with maidens, farmers and their donkeys, presenting their gifts. On the other side is David, in armour with his charger, surrounded by soldiers whose hardened appearance serve to underline the vulnerablity of Abigail and her companions. The soldiers' presence is made more threatening by the array of spears held up above their heads, before a barren landscape. By contrast, the landscape behind Abigail is green and fertile.
Francken's technique, honed in the more precise execution of cabinet-sized works, is brilliantly adapted to take on the treatment of figures of Rubensian proportions. Passages of visible underdrawing suggest that the composition was drawn out before being painted in with assuredness. Freer brushwork is used in the painting of the assembled crowd, while special attention is lavished on the action in the immediate foreground. Abigail's dress is glazed in gold and the position of her right forearm and hand has been moved from her lap up to her chest in an act of suppliance (the pentiment is clearly visible to the naked eye). David, standing before her, bends forward in acceptance.