4.13.18 — A Detour to the Promised Land

The twelve tribes of Israel had a serious detour on the way to the promised land, wandering in the wilderness. For Francisco de Zurbarán, so did their ancestors on the way to the New World.

His paintings of Jacob and his sons never did cross the Atlantic, and all but one ended up instead in the far north of England. United at the Frick Collection, through April 22, they line an entire room, much as in the Long Dining Room at Auckland Castle in County Durham. Francisco de Zurbarán's Gad (Auckland Castle, c. 1440–1445)For all their ambition, they make an awkward introduction to the Spanish painter. Yet they tell a colorful story about not just the patriarchs, but also the uses of painting then and now.

Zurbarán was the leading artist in Seville and the greatest artist of the Spanish Baroque after Diego Velázquez—and I have added this to an earlier report on a contemporary, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, as a longer review and my latest upload. Zurbarán could almost match the dignity, austerity, and naturalism of Velázquez portraits, and those same qualities bring a sense of presence and mystery to still-life and standing saints. Still, the thriving seaport and cultural center took a hit from the economy and the plague, and he had to look elsewhere. He knew just where, too, given Seville’s role in trade with the Americas. Just last year, the Met found a thriving art in Mexico later in the century, with Cristóbal de Villalpando. For now, though, Zurbarán could hope that South America would take its lead from Spain.

He could also adapt his art to changing audiences. The series, the Frick suggests, could have served as effigies in civic and religious processions. It could also please those who identified the native peoples with the “lost tribes of Israel.” (For those who follow such things, ten of twelve broke away in the Book of Kings, dividing the kingdom, only to be swallowed up in the Assyrian invasion.) It could, that is, had it ever reached its destination. Painted in the early 1640s, it dropped off the map until it turned up for sale in London more than seventy years later.

To this day, no one knows why. Was Zurbarán, new to emerging markets, just working on spec without a customer? Did a buyer back off or, more fancifully, pirates hijack the paintings at sea? Twenty-four virgin saints did make it to a monastery in Peru in 1647—and another fifteen to Buenos Aires two years later. And how did Auckland Castle win the bidding for only twelve of thirteen? Had it run out of money by the time it got to the youngest son, Benjamin?

What, too, did Zurbarán paint? For the Baroque, Jacob and his twelve sons prefigured a New Testament god and his twelve apostles, but these figures fall far short of religious rapture. They come most alive in their costumes and their company. Benjamin keeps a wolf on a chain like a pet, and Issachar leans toward his donkey as if greeting the closest of friends. Still, their colorful clothing and down-to-earth gestures look back to a far less mature artist, the painter of Saint Casilda ten years earlier—and to his workshop. The landscapes set low in the picture frame, the faces have only a token psychology, and their attributes serve more as identifiers than as characterization.

They follow Jacob’s prophecy for his sons in Genesis. Is Reuben, the eldest son, “unstable as water”? Fine, so have him lean on a pole. Is Judah a “lion’s whelp”? Absolutely, and he comes with a lion, a decidedly cute one at that. They also follow late Renaissance engravings rather than strive for originality, perhaps because the artist never expected his customary clients to see them.

They are intriguing all the same. They fill the room with life-size figures that one can almost approach face to face. They also fill the room with color, and scholars relate their peasant stripes and regal brocades to the fabric industry in Seville. Zurbarán probably painted two background landscapes as models, leaving much else to assistants, but he had to relish the range of ages, stances, and moods, from Simeon in his anger to Gad the wary warrior. The colorful story continues with their reception in England, the Frick argues, when an Old Testament prophecy could accord with growing demands for rights for Jews. Their reception in New York brings the story up to date.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.