Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons Reunite at The Frick

March 8, 2018 Updated: March 15, 2018    

NEW YORK—A mysterious and imposing family reunion is being exhibited at The Frick Collection with the Spanish Golden Age painter Francisco de Zurbarán taking center stage, while his fellow Andalusians Diego Velázquez and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (both in the permanent collection) complement him on the sidelines. The exhibition “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings From Auckland Castle,” running until April 22, sports a series of 13 towering figures that wrap around the East Gallery. The original 13th painting is together with the rest of the series for the first time in over 260 years.

It’s an immersive experience relating to these legendary biblical figures (see virtual tour). They seem simultaneously remote and humble, yet uncannily present and commanding. At first glance, they look almost like playing cards—each wearing his own iconic outfit, playing off of one another. Taking a closer look, however, we see that the faces look quite realistic, with unique expressions and character.

“While the compositions were taken from prints [etchings], the faces were painted from life,” Susan Grace Galassi, senior curator at The Frick, explained in the East Gallery, packed with visitors, on Feb. 21. “I feel we are looking at contemporary Seville in these faces, and maybe even the members of Zurbarán’s workshop posed for the paintings,” she said.

“Zebulun,” circa 1640–1645, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664). Oil on canvas, 78 1/2 inches by 40 1/2 inches. The striped fabric of Zebulun’s jaunty cropped pants has been connected with textiles from the Americas. (The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust/Robert LaPrelle)

Around 1630, Zurbarán was the hottest painter in Seville at a time when the Andalusian seaport was not only a flourishing artistic center but also the wealthiest city in Spain, bustling with activity as it monopolized trade with the New World. As a savvy businessman and manager, Zurbarán was receiving a steady flow of commissions for ecclesiastical institutions and palaces throughout Spain and the Spanish colonies.

This series is not what we would expect to see by Zurbarán, who is mostly known for his more highly finished devotional paintings and for his still lifes. One of his biographers praised Zurbarán by calling him the “Spanish Caravaggio,” Alexandra Letvin wrote in the catalog. Zurbarán had the ability to create the illusion of three-dimensionality with tromp l’oeil effects. He rendered drapery folds with incredible complexity, following the Romanist style of the Flemish masters influenced by the Italian Renaissance. The naturalism promoted by Velázquez that was prevalent in the 17th century influenced him just as much.

Zurbarán’s apprenticeship in Seville overlapped with Velázquez’s for three years, and unlike his contemporaries who were trained in the theories and practices of the Italian Renaissance—especially in perspective—Zurbarán was the odd-man out. He was mostly self-taught and learned how to use the tools of the trade from an unknown artist, though it is known that he did assist Velázquez once on a royal commission.

Invited to Partake in Stories Within Stories

The massive seven-foot-tall figures of the “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” series dominate the pictorial space, filling the foreground. The minuscule landscapes behind them defy the rules of perspective, thus presenting the Old Testament figures larger than life.

“Jacob,” circa 1640–1645, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664). Oil on canvas, 79 1/8 inches by 40 5/16 inches. (The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust/Robert LaPrelle)

Renamed “Israel” (Genesis 32:28), Jacob is considered the ancestor of the Israelite nation and his sons the founders of the Twelve Tribes, as described in a poem in Genesis (Chapter 49). Galassi decided to arrange the paintings as they have been displayed in England’s Auckland Castle for more than 260 years, clockwise and in the order of the “blessings” in the poem, starting with Jacob:

“Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in the days to come. Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen to Israel your father,” Galassi recited the poem.

“To me, it’s really more of a gathering that you as the viewer are invited to partake,” she said, surrounded by the paintings. “That is very characteristic of Baroque art—that the viewer plays a role and is included,” she said.

Jacob is depicted squinting and seems to be looking down at us as if to remind us of something. We don’t know if these “patriarchs,” as they are traditionally called, actually lived, but their legendary status can certainly be felt in the East Gallery of The Frick Collection. The initial reaction may be overwhelming upon being surrounded by them, but once you take some time to perceive them, their attributes make themselves known. They seem to speak to each other in this rare reunion.

Zurbarán chose to depict them in the context of Jacob’s proclamations as having been fulfilled. The blessings “often refer to earlier events in Genesis, so they are stories within stories,” Galassi said.

Divinity Over Human Folly

One of the most moving stories is that of Joseph, who was also chosen as the poster child of the exhibition. Zurbarán depicts him with an expression full of humanity and dressed in elaborate, sumptuous clothes. As the son of a haberdasher, Zurbarán was familiar with a wide variety of textiles and fabrics. “He was absolutely superb at representing fabrics, which play an iconographic role throughout [his paintings],” Galassi said.

“The level of detail in that painting [of Joseph] is phenomenal—if you work your way up from the toes, through every band of embroidery and fringe and beautiful laces and fur.” It shows Joseph’s significance, Galassi said.

“Joseph,” circa 1640–1645, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664). Oil on canvas, 79 1/4 inches by 40 3/4 inches. (The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust/Robert LaPrelle)

Joseph was the 11th and favorite son of Jacob’s. Out of jealousy, Joseph’s brothers conspired to sell him into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. After his ability to interpret dreams aroused the interest of the pharaoh, Joseph became a great administrator and averted the effects of a major famine. Eventually, he invited his father Jacob and his 11 brothers to live in Egypt with him. But first, he put them through various ordeals to prove that they would not abandon Benjamin, the youngest, as they had abandoned him. He then assured them by saying: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life … God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me, but God” (Genesis 45:5, 7–8).

At the heart of Joseph’s story is acceptance of one’s fate, forgiveness, and the theme of divine providence overruling human wrongdoing.

A Silent Display for Tolerance

We do not know who commissioned Zurbarán to create the set of 13 paintings of Jacob and his sons, or for what reason. Perhaps they were intended as ephemeral figures to be carried in religious festival processions, or meant to line a refectory, a nave, or a cloisterThey may have been commissioned by Spanish conquistadors or missionaries in the New World, who were claiming that the indigenous population of South America was descended from the Lost Tribes. The paintings could have provided a didactic means for converting the native population.

The general consensus is that the paintings never left the Old World, but were eventually imported to London in the early 18th century. The series was sold at auction in 1727–1728 to a Portuguese-Jewish merchant named James Mendez. Upon Mendez’s death, the bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor, was able to purchase all but one (“Benjamin”) of the 13 paintings at auction in 1756. “Benjamin” fell to another bidder. Trevor then commissioned the British painter Arthur Pond (baptized 1701–1798) to paint a copy of “Benjamin” to complete the set. 

“Benjamin,” circa 1640–1645, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664). Oil on canvas, 78 3/8 inches by 40 1/2 inches. (Grimsthorpe and Drummond Castle Trust/Robert LaPrelle)

A supporter of religious tolerance toward both Jews and Catholics, Trevor strongly advocated for the Jewish Naturalization Bill that was passed in 1753. A year later, however, the bill was rescinded due to widespread protests. As he would entertain notable and possibly anti-Semitic guests, the 13 paintings of Jacob and his sons, wrapping around his dining room, served as a quiet yet powerful statement of tolerance.

If they were initially intended to be used for religious conversion in South America, it would be an interesting contrast to how they were later used as a means for promulgating religious tolerance in England. In any event, Zurbarán’s paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons continue to serve new circumstances—for fostering heritage.

“Zurbarán’s paintings and other works on display in the Long Dining Room at Auckland Castle. The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust (Colin Davison)

The Holiness of Beauty

In 2012, a philanthropic financier and native of northeastern England, Jonathan Ruffer, saved Zurbarán’s series from being sold off by the Church of England Commission. By establishing a trust, Ruffer acquired the paintings and Auckland Castle to turn it into a world-class heritage center. The Auckland Project will include a Faith Museum (to explore the history of faith in the British Isles), a Spanish Gallery and Research Center, and a Mining Art Gallery (about the mining history in the region and artwork by coal miners), among other cultural interests.

“Auckland Castle extends the idea of seeking things bigger than ourselves to other avenues of inspiration. Art, music, gardens, nature, food, silences, walks and the patina of heritage will all be found here. These things we call ‘the holiness of beauty’ sitting in harmony with the beauty of holiness—and in tension with it.” Ruffer states his vision on the Auckland Project website.

Auckland Castle. (Auckland Castle/Zurbarán Trust/Graeme Peacock)

Since Trevor first displayed Zurbarán’s series in the Long Dining Room at Auckland Castle more than 260 years ago, the paintings have not traveled to the United States—until now, for the current exhibition at The Frick and for last fall’s exhibition at the Meadows Museum in Dallas.

As Auckland Castle is undergoing renovation, The Auckland Project loaned its 12 paintings to the Meadows Museum and The Frick. The 13th painting, “Benjamin,” was lent by Lady Willoughby de Eresby of Grimsthorpe Castle in Bourne, Lincolnshire, to The Frick, which means that this is the only time the entire set of 13 has been reunited since before the paintings were sold at auction in 1727. After April 22, the paintings will return to their respective places, and The Frick’s exhibition will be remembered as an opportunity for taking part in a most unusual and exquisite family reunion.

Magnolias in bloom at The Frick Collection in New York, on April 22, 2015. (The Frick Collection)

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