This painting illustrates a scene from the Old Testament. After the prophet Samuel anointed David as King Saul's successor, Saul became jealous and plotted David's death. Here the artist shows David's loyal friend Jonathan (Saul's son) preparing to shoot three arrows as a warning to David who is hiding in a field.
Most artists who interpreted the story of Jonathan and David's friendship depicted the emotional climax when the two say their final farewells. Leighton chose an earlier scene in order to celebrate the ideal of heroic male beauty. Jonathan's pose derives from the famous Renaissance sculpture of David by Michelangelo.