One of the best stories told in any New York museum exhibition this season unfolds at the Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue. It begins with the Spanish baroque master Francisco de Zurbarán, 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; 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.
Who commissioned the series is a mystery. But considering the size of the portraits — each one is more than six feet tall, and they’re made much larger by the high hang at the Frick — and Zurbarán’s luxuriant treatment of his figures, it must have been a wealthy patron not willing to spare on detail. The most blessed of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, who, according to the 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.
Perhaps the works were intended for the Americas, a theory supported by the painting of Zebulun, the son said in Genesis to “settle on the shore of the sea.” In the picture, he holds an anchor and a barge pole against an open waterway and wears striped, baggy shorts of many vivid colors, which may have been Zurbarán’s imitation of a native textile pattern. What’s more, there are copies of these paintings in Mexican collections that can be traced back to Zurbarán’s studio, although his hand is not in them. The wildest suggestion is that they were sent abroad but pirated and returned to Europe.
The full and multilayered story is told beautifully in the expertly edited exhibition catalog. But in the galleries, the paintings must speak for themselves, and the name Zurbarán is no pre-guarantee of success. In his day, the baroque artist was often and for good reason called the Spanish Caravaggio, especially in how he followed the Italian master’s use of dark, indeterminate space to isolate a figure’s internal turmoil. Zurbarán understood how to use a simple gesture for complex implications, like in his extraordinary painting Saint Francis in Meditation at the National Gallery in London, where the saint kneels alone in a blackened room, clutching a skull, covered in a patchwork of old rags and lost in ecstasy with his jaw dropped open.
This is Zurbarán at his best. Yet in too many pictures, he elaborated the other baroque tradition, which took the hard naturalism of Caravaggio, who painted the saints as paupers and the Virgin on her deathbed with dirtied feet, to fantastical and saccharine ends. This rococo inflection comes across most fully in paintings like Zurbarán’s Annunciation from 1650 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Gabriel and the Madonna are surrounded by a heavenly chorus of floating angels and putti who sugarcoat the scene and distract from the greater existential drama of the Virgin’s encounter with her visitor.
Zurbarán was born in 1598 in a small town called Fuente de Cantos in southwestern Spain. He was largely self-taught. By 1629, he had his own workshop in Seville and was soon able to support large-scale productions. One of his biggest projects came in 1628, when the Mercedarian monks commissioned twenty-two paintings of the founder of their order, Saint Peter Nolasco. This helped cement his reputation as a monastic artist. Although he worked on a royal commission in Madrid in 1634 with Diego Velázquez, his exact contemporary, he was not as associated with the Spanish court. He died in 1664 in Madrid.
The Jacob series shows Zurbarán in good light. He was especially adept when he confined his figures and focused on description, not invention. Some of the loveliest passages in the pictures are of drapery and regalia, such as Judah’s elegant, gold-patterned robe, and Jacob’s bulbous, folded turban. Often, these flourishes illustrate larger themes, as in the painting of Asher, whose food Jacob predicted would be rich. Asher is shown with a large basket overflowing with freshly baked, golden bread, just as Reuben, Jacob’s first son, leans against an imposing column that implies all the weight of biblical tradition.
In 1756, Richard Trevor, the Bishop of Durham, bought twelve of the thirteen pictures and put them in his dining room at Auckland Castle. He intended them as a statement. The strict Anglican, saintly in manner, was especially devoted to the plight of the Jews in England, and wanted to make clear to his guests how he bemoaned their low status. Today, those paintings still live at Trevor’s former estate at Auckland Castle, to where they will return after this show closes in April. That makes the Frick exhibition a rare treat. Not only does it bring Zurbarán into clear focus, it also offers the chance to see how a simple painting cycle with one clear theme can become greater than the sum of its parts.
‘Zurbarán: Jacob and His Twelve Sons’
The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street
Through April 22