When 18th-century guests came to dine with Richard Trevor, the Bishop of Durham, at Auckland Castle, they were surrounded by 12 over six-foot-tall canvases by Francisco de Zurbarán representing the biblical Jacob and his sons, founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Each painting is its own visual story representing the deathbed blessings of Jacob on his sons as described in the Book of Genesis, from Judah whose “sceptre shall not depart” regally draped in a gold brocade robe and fur that hint at his descendants kings David and Solomon, to the firstborn Reuben, “unstable as water,” leaning on a column with downcast eyes to suggest both his strength and betrayal for sleeping with his father’s concubine. The installation of these paintings in the Anglican religious leader’s dining room was an affirmation of his commitment to religious tolerance in England, such as his support of the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753 that extended the rights of Jewish people in an era of antisemitism.
Now, while Auckland Castle in Northeast England is under a two-year renovation, these paintings are traveling for the first time in centuries. Their North American debut was at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, and currently they are at the Frick Collection in New York in Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle. For the exhibition, the series is reunited with the only one that the Bishop of Durham did not acquire — Benjamin, the youngest son, a “ravenous wolf,” who is looking over his shoulder at the viewer while holding a wolf on a chain.
“Zurbarán isn’t as well known as the other Spanish Golden Age artists that were his contemporaries, such as Diego Velázquez,” Susan Galassi, senior curator at the Frick, told Hyperallergic. A mostly self-taught painter, Zurbarán worked out of Seville, a hub for Baroque artists. One of his strengths was in creating groups of monumental paintings with sacred themes that had a secular appeal. He was also skilled at still lifes, shown by the heaping basket of bread held by Asher. “He worked in series a lot throughout his life, but they were usually the Apostles, or founders of religious institutions — very rarely did he depict figures from the Hebrew Bible,” Galassi said.
The origins of these 13 paintings, including who commissioned them, are mysterious. They turned up in 1720s London, and all except Benjamin were acquired by the Bishop of Durham in 1756. From the subject matter, historians can guess their intended audience, which may have been the Spanish colonies in the Americas.
“It was believed at that time that the ten tribes that were pushed out of northern Israel disappeared somewhere into the mists, and no one is really sure what happened to them,” Galassi explained. “When the Spanish started to have commerce with the New World they realized that it was populated, and to fit that in with the Bible they decided that they must be the descendants of these tribes.” Furthermore, if the Spanish colonists saw the indigenous people of the Americas as Jewish (ignoring their actual sacred traditions), it made their conversion seem destined.
One of the sons — Zebulun — wears colorful striped cropped pants that are connected with textiles from the Americas. Zurbarán was the son of a haberdasher, and gave great care to the depiction of textiles. Some are lavish, like the fur-trimmed robes and elaborate turban of Joseph, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt and rose to power; he regards the viewer directly yet compassionately, representing his forgiveness of his brothers. Simeon, who with his brother Levi “in their anger they killed men,” wears a cloak of rough fur and sandals that show him as a savage person.
“The fabrics and the costumes play a very big role in the series,” Galassi stated. “His goal was to show the family as an ensemble and how they all fit together as a unit, but he also had to clearly distinguish each one from the other and to characterize them in relation to the blessing that Jacob gave them.”
The video below highlights the year of technical analysis on the paintings carried out at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. With his assistants, Zurbarán carefully planned his paintings, shown by how he built up predetermined colors for the fabrics through underlays that gave them depth and luminosity. Some of this vibrance has faded. The blue smalt darkened, and a red pigment was lost, leaving areas like drapery over Joseph’s arm pink when once it was crimson. Through examining the poses, researchers also determined that he used Northern European prints for source material, such as a Dürer woodcut of Christ with a spade that was adapted for Naphtali who “giveth goodly words.”
At the Frick, the series encircles the visitor, much as it would have in the Auckland Castle dining room. It’s a series that rewards slow viewing, as its details — like the rustic landscapes behind the figures and the great attention to humanizing each as an individual — emerge gradually. And although the paintings portray a distant past, reinforced by the exotic-seeming clothing, they recall a particularly vibrant time of Spanish art, which positioned Seville at the center of a global exchange that stretched all the way to the New World.
“The whole thing is like a gathering, and as you go through it is like we are partaking in the gathering and maybe even earning a blessing ourselves,” Galassi said. “Maybe he had that in mind when he painted the series, that the viewer would be brought into this moment in time.”
Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle continues through April 22 at the Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan).