Monday, February 26, 2018

JACOB and HIS TWELVE SONS at THE FRICK: Review By Polly Guerin

JACOB, ca. 1640-45
Why does Zurbaran's  JACOB and HIS TWELVE SONS resonate today? Quite frankly, it is one of the best stories told in any New York museum exhibition this season. which traveled to the United States for the first time from Auckland Castle, County Durham, England. The Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue presents a breath-taking panorama, a series of thirteen monumental figures painted by the seventeenth-century Spanish master Francisco de Zurbaran. Image: Francisco de Zurbaran (Spanish, 1598-1664) JACOB ca. 1640-45, Oil on canvas. (c)Auckland Project/Zurbaran Trust: Photo credit: Robert La Prelle.
     This exhibition, through April 22, 2018, begins with the Spanish baroque master  Zurbaran, who in the 1640s made thirteen paintings of Jacob, the Old Testament patriarch, and his sons, who founded the twelve tribes of Israel. Each figure carries his share of the story: Jacob, now old, is folded over his cane, eyes downcast, ruminating on the future.
      The prophetic poem, "The Blessings of Jacob" a prophetic poem in Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis was Zurbaran's primary source for the imagery of the life-size figures, each of which is rendered with a strong sense of individuality yet forms a synergistic part of a cohesive choreographed group. For the Auckland paintings, Zurbarian turned largely for inspiration from engravings depicting Jacob and his twelve sons that were executed in 1589 by Jacques de Gheyn II after designs by Karel van Mander I. The expressive and highly distinctive faces of each son, however, suggest that they were painted from life.  On canvases measuring nearly seven feet in height, full-length figures wearing sumptuous, exotic costumes tower over varied landscapes. Who commissioned the series is a mystery.       
Reuben, Gad,  Naphtali, Joseph 
According to archival notes: It was likely intended for export to Latin America. However, the paintings first appeared in England in the 1720s. Twelve of the thirteen canvases were purchased in 1736 by Richard Trevor prince-bishop of Durham, a supporter of Jewish rights.  He installed them in the Long Dining Room of Auckland Castle, the traditional residence of the Anglican bishop, as a declaration of his commitment to the movement for religious tolerance. Image: Reuben, Gad, Naphtali, Joseph. Franciso de Zurbaran (Spanish, 1598-1664) (c) The Auckland Project/Zurbaran Trust. Photo Credit: Robert LaPrelle. 

STUDY THE IMAGES. Both eye and facial expressions and costumes tell a story about each son.For example, on his deathbed, Jacob assembled his sons to foretell what was to become of them. Describing his eldest son, Reuben, "unstable as water," Jacob stated, "you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father's bed and defiled it," a reference to Reuben sleeping with Jacob's concubine Bilhah, as told in an earlier chapter of Genesis. In keeping with his status as firstborn, Reuben wears an elaborate costume and leans against a column, signifying his strength and fortitude.  His downcast, shaded eyes and inward expression, however, reflect Jacob's prediction that Reuben would not thrive.
Zebulun, Asher, Issachar, Dan
Zurbaran's luxuriant treatment of his figures did not spare on detail. 
Benjamin, known for his love of fierce battle, stands with a wolf looking angry to his side; and Issachar, the meekest of them all, is accompanied by a humble donkey and wears only a simple robe. The most blessed of Jacob's sons, Joseph, who according to Hebrew Bible wore "a coat of many colors, is handsomely appointed in a fur-lined robe, embroidered hosiery and a regal, deep-green scarf held together by a luxurious jeweled oval clip. Image: Zebulun, Asher, Issachar, Dan by Francisco de Zurbaran (Spanish, 1598-1664) Oil on Canvas ca. 1640-45. (c) The Auckland Project/Trust. Photo credit: Robert LaPrelle.
    The full and multi-layered story is told in a beautifully illustrated exhibition catalog, but in the galleries, the paintings speak for themselves. In his day, the artist was often, and for good reason, called the Spanish Caravaggio.
ABOUT THE SUBJECT OF THE SERIES: The subject of the series comes from the Old Testament.  Jacob, the son of Issac and the grandson of Abraham, fathered twelve sons with his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and two concubines Bilhah and Zilpah. The sons are considered to be the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the forefathers of the Jewish people.  For more information and a complete schedule of programs, lectures, talks and a symposium in conjunction with this exhibition visit:
     Ta Ta Darlings!!!   These awesome, monumental paintings are a testament to history and an opportunity to see Zurbaran's defining techniques that depict each son's individualistic character. Fan mail welcome, Polly would love to hear from you at: Visit Polly's website and click in the left-hand column on the Blog that resonates with your interest.  

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