The deep backstory of Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle, now at the Frick Collection, is one of mystery. The subject itself is straightforward: Zurbarán painted Jacob and his dozen male progeny, the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, in a series of broad portraits, each larger than life. The sons are shown with attributes and attitudes reflecting the prophesies Jacob made on his deathbed, as recounted in the Book of Genesis. The mystery is in the motivation for the paintings: such an ambitious program would have been undertaken to satisfy a commission, but we know not who wanted the paintings, nor if they were ever delivered. One published notion, no longer considered credible, was that after the paintings left the artist’s studio in Seville, they were hijacked by English pirates before reaching their assigned destination.
In the 1720s—eighty years after they were painted—the canvases surfaced at auction in England, where they were bought by a Jewish merchant. In 1756, they showed up again at auction, and Richard Trevor, the Bishop of Durham, purchased all but one of the paintings. It was a small victory for European enlightenment. Three years earlier, Trevor had advocated for passage of the Jewish Naturalization Act, which recognized the rights of foreign-born Jews, but the bill proved too progressive for the public, and after an outpouring of antisemitism it was promptly overturned. Soon thereafter, Trevor bought Jacob and His Twelve Sons and installed them prominently in his dining room at Auckland Castle, where visiting notables would see the paintings. His purchase constituted a tidy poke in the eye of his socially regressive peers. The paintings’ appearance at the Frick could not have found a better moment, given the uncertain status of Mexican and Muslim immigrants. That moment may well be the product of coincidence, rather than calculation: the castle is closed for major renovation, so the Zurbaráns have been on the road, undergoing a year-long inspection by conservators at the Kimbell Museum, followed by an exhibition at the Meadows Museum in Dallas before coming to the Frick.
All the paintings are dated to the early 1640s, the same time Jusepe de Ribera painted The Clubfoot, in most ways a strikingly similar design. Like the Ribera, all Zurbarán’s figures are set outdoors, standing against a low horizon and silhouetted before a vast sky. All are lit from the upper left. That neither Jacob nor his sons hit a note equivalent to Ribera’s jaunty realism probably has several explanations. One is that Zurbarán was just a little out of his element, which is clear if you drive to Hartford to view his St. Serapion, the martyr painted in hard-edged intimacy, his superb white robe placed against a dark void; Zurbarán’s gifts didn’t transfer easily to the open landscape. Another issue is the generalization of Zurbarán’s portraits here, which, notwithstanding the contention that they were based on individual models, lack the precision to make a convincing claim. They are “types” rather than portraits, which diffuses their realism, though perhaps that was necessary for the project. The poses rely at least as much on previous sources—the curators have done a marvelous job tracking down prints that Zurbarán plundered for inspiration—as they do on observation.
To be fair, an accurate assessment of the paintings is clouded by the sort of complications that are endemic to many old master works. Claire Barry, Director of Conservation at the Kimbell Art Museum, told me that there are identifiable signature passages throughout the paintings, including Zurbarán’s fondness for zigzag brush strokes and places where he incised wet paint with the butt end of the brush. But it is, she admitted, impossible to render a precise distinction between the master’s handiwork and that of his workshop assistants; the fact that the canvases have subsequently been retouched and inconsistently cleaned makes definite ascriptions harder still. The fugitive nature of materials adds another layer of uncertainty. According to Barry, Zurbarán favored the use of smalt, a cheap blue pigment that has discolored and darkened over time. In many passages of drapery and large swatches of the sky, what we see now bears a merely passing resemblance to what Zurbarán and his assistants painted. Even the best possible restoration will likely produce but an intriguing shadow of the thirteen paintings that left Zurbarán’s workshop in the 1640s.
The canvases vary in quality. There’s an archaic stolidity to the depictions of Levi, Judah, and Reuben that borders on the primitive; but for isolated areas, these look to have been painted by someone other than the master. The brocaded vestments of Dan received more attention than did his person. One suspects a thorough cleaning will do a world of good to the figures whose chiaroscuro has dulled over time, and perhaps disclose that the miserable perspective of the column upon which Reuben leans was the fault of some later “correction.” There are also ample flashes of brilliance, as in Simeon’s odd and romantic appearance, his lumpy clothing fashioned from animal skins, a humorous appropriation of a Flemish print of a pompous king. The gesture of Zebulun appears to have been borrowed from prints by Dutch and German artists, but the positioning of the upright staff alongside the figure’s head and arm may be an original conception. His portrait is the most beautiful of the bunch. The countenance of Asher, seen in profile, is strikingly elegant, and here again Zurbarán included a staff—this time a shepherd’s crook—to great compositional advantage. Yet the painting’s coup de grace, anomalous among the thirteen canvases, is a still life. The breadbasket Asher holds is a reminder of the sensitized realism of Zurbarán’s finest painting.
For me, the most arresting work is the one that got away from Richard Trevor at the auction of 1756. Benjamin, which depicts Jacob’s last and favored son, was lent for the show by Grimsthorpe Castle. His pose is lifted from a Dürer print of the Crucifixion; the body turning away, head looking back toward us and arm hitched behind was a gesture too good to pass up. Van Dyck borrowed it for still different purposes, the portrayal of regal insouciance. The figure of Benjamin is cast in a crisp and mystical light, and what we see of his face, glimpsed between patterns of shadow, is riveting and a little disturbing, like the best of Zurbarán’s painting.
Zurbaran’s Jacob and is Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle continues at the Frick Collection through April 22, 2018.