In November 1863 Brown accepted a commission from the engravers and art editors, the Brothers Dalziel, to design three illustrations for their projected illustrated Bible. Burne-Jones, Leighton and Holman Hunt were also asked to contribute to the wood-engravings. The design for Elijah and the Widow's Son was sent off in March 1864 and soon after Brown began a watercolour based on the composition. That watercolour was almost certainly the present work which was sold by the art dealer Ernest Gambart to the shipping magnate and eminent Pre-Raphaelite collector Frederick Richards Leyland. In July the same year, a wine merchant named J.R. Trist commissioned an oil version of Elijah and the Widow's Son (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) and in 1868 a larger watercolour was reluctantly painted for Frederick Craven of Manchester (Victoria & Albert Museum, London).
The watercolour illustrates I Kings XVII and was described by the artist's son in 1899; 'We all remember how the widow in the extremity of her grief cried out, '"Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" So we can all imagine the half (or half-assumed) reproachful look with which Elijah, as he brought the child down stairs, would have said, "See, thy son liveth," and even surmise the faint twinkle of humour in the eyes with which he would receive the reply, "Now by this I know that thou art a man of God." The child is represented as in his grave-clothes, which have a far-off resemblance to Egyptian funereal trappings, having been laid out with flowers in the palms of his hands, as is done by women in such cases. Without this the subject (the coming to life) could not be expressed by the painter's art, and till this view of the subject presented itself to me I could not see my way to make a picture of it...' (Ford Madox Hueffer, Ford Madox Brown, A Record of his Life and Work, 1896, p.167, 201-202)
'The shadow on the wall projected by a bird out of the picture returning to its nest (consisting of the bottle which in some countries is inserted in the walls to secure the presence of the swallow of good omen), typifies the return of the soul to the body. The Hebrew writing over the door consists of the verses of Deut. V. 4-9, which the Jews were ordered so to use (possibly suggested to Moses by the Egyptian custom). Probably their dwelling in tents gave rise to the habit of writing the words instead on parchment placed in a case. As is habitual with very poor people, the widow is supposed to have resumed her household duties, little expecting the result of the Prophet's vigil with her dead child. She has therefore been kneading a cake for his dinner. The costume is such as can be devised from the study of Egyptian combined with Assyrian, and other nearly contemporary remains. The effect is vertical sunlight, such as exists in southern latitudes.'
Ford Madox Hueffer, Ford Madox Brown, A Record of his Life and Work, 1896, p.167, 201-202