Pictorial and Political Lessons from Zurbarán: We Are Family

Zurbarán's images of Jewish patriarchs made a case for religious and ethnic tolerance. Concerns that are still vital today.

"Joseph" (detail) by Francisco de Zurbarán, ca. 1640-45, The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust; Photo: Robert LaPrelle

What goes around comes around is an oft-invoked truism. Yet it’s still surprising that a series of 17th-century paintings are relevant in our current cultural moment. When anti-Muslim rhetoric is espoused from the Oval Office and anti-Semitic invective (“The Jews shall not replace us!”) chanted at an alt-right rally, it raises the issue of tolerance for all faiths. As Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick Collection, said about “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle” (on display through Apr. 22), “Particularly important for all of us today is the message.” Speaking at a press preview, he added, “The [paintings’] theme makes them particularly apposite at this moment.” That theme relates to our ongoing debate about acceptance of immigrants and people of different religious faiths and ethnicity.

The back story of the 13 portraits that ring the large East Gallery at the Frick almost outshines the art. Chief curator Susan Galassi recalls seeing them in their permanent home, Auckland Castle in County Durham, UK, where they will return next autumn after renovations. “We walked into a room like this and were awestruck,” she said at the press preview. “We were in the midst of a spectacle — seven-foot canvases of 13 over-life-sized figures.”

“Jacob,” c. 1640-45, by Zurbarán, Auckland Castle Trust/Zurbarán Trust. The patriarch’s age is signaled by his white beard and bent posture, his status by the gold turban and long scarf.

The series is based on Book 49 of Genesis that describes the patriarch Jacob (on his deathbed) bestowing blessings on his sons, progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. The series unites portraits of father and sons at a family gathering before the diaspora. (One portrait — of the youngest son Benjamin — is on loan from a private collection at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire.) Like any family circle, there are both stained and spotless scions. Jacob’s “blessings” are really prophecies. Some are actually curses, since some sons are villains, while others become farmers, bakers or kings. In the portraits, Zurbarán represents their varying fates through expressive poses, facial expressions and attire.

It’s thought that Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) received a commission for the series around 1640 from a patron in Latin America. (It was then thought that Aztecs or Incas might be descendants of the “lost tribes.”) The commission was a “big, bold undertaking,” Galassi said, noting that Zurbarán ordered 90 feet of canvas and set his assistants to work. Since no one knew how Biblical characters actually dressed 1,200 years before the birth of Christ, Zurbarán used engravings from Northern European prints as sources for the elaborate costumes, props and gestures. The individualized faces in Zurbarán’s portraits. like the saucy look of the youngest son Benjamin, a dead ringer for one of Picasso’s harlequins, were likely done by his own hand based on his assistants as models.

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“Benjamin,” ca. 1640-45, by Zurbarán, The Grimsthorpe and Drummond Castle Trust, Photo: Robert LaPrelle.

For more than 80 years after the series was created in 1640-45, the paintings disappeared. Then, in 1756, the Anglican bishop Richard Trevor, nicknamed “Saint Durham” for his piety by Horace Walpole, was able to acquire 12 of the 13 paintings at auction. He installed them in his Long Dining Room, designed especially to show off the portraits.

The reason for the purchase and installation was overtly political, dating back to 1753 when — with Bishop Trevor’s fervent support — the English Parliament passed the Jewish Naturalization Act. The so-called “Jew Bill” granted foreign-born Jewish residents the right to petition for citizenship without converting to the Anglican faith. (At the time they were denied civil rights, like owning property, going to university, holding office or participating in foreign trade).

Hysterical opposition ensued. Anti-Semites spread scurrilous propaganda like fears that newly enfranchised Jews would engage in ritual slaughter of Christian babies or force British boys to be circumcised. The idea of being both English and Jewish was considered an impossible and dangerous mixture, like combining bread and arsenic in the human body, as a pamphleteer warned. Economic fears as well as shameless demagoguery and debates rife with factual inaccuracies doomed the bill. In 1754, the Act was repealed.

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A Baroque power-point presentation promoting tolerance.

In response, Trevor planned to use the paintings as talking points to persuade his important guests to grant civil rights to Jews. In his orchestrated arrangement, visitors entered the castle and processed through the throne room — where 12 paintings of New Testament apostles hung — to the dining room encircled by images of the Old Testament patriarchs. The sequence implied continuity from one faith to another (Judaism to Christianity). For Trevor, the installation was a sort of power-point presentation of his day to promote his message on the need for tolerance.

“The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion,” 1628, by Zurbarán, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. St. Serapion was nailed to an X-shaped cross and mutilated. The many shades of white in his robes contrast dramatically with the black background.

Besides the exhibition’s thematic relevance for our day, there’s an aesthetic surprise in store too. Those expecting to see famed masterpieces by Zurbarán, like the monumental severity of his paintings of monks, will be amazed. This is not Art History’s Zurbarán, a virtuoso of unadorned simplicity. In the series of full-length portraits, instead of the austerity and restrained palette of his images of monks and saints against a black background, you see color and busy detail. He trades stark intensity for ornate density.

The show originated at the premier venue for Spanish art in the US, SMU’s Meadows Museum in Dallas, known as “the Prado on the Prairie.” As Mark Roglán, Meadows director, acknowledged of the response to his showing of the co-curated exhibition last fall, “In Dallas, people discovered a different Zurbarán.”

Zurbarán, called the “Spanish Caravaggio,” here trades his signature chiaroscuro, with raking bolts of light illuminating ravaged faces, and his usually empty, dark backgrounds for intricately rendered fabrics of the figures’ exotic costumes. While his acclaimed monks and saints are attired in snow-white habits or coarse, brown linen robes, Jacob and his twelve sons are dapper dandies, wearing fuzzy furs, silk turbans, brocade tunics, even a gold-and-pearl brooch. Some figures’ trousers are adorned with shiny ribbons, suggesting that — as a boy — Zurbarán absorbed much from his father the haberdasher. His haptic representation of texture and textiles is top-notch.

“Naphtali,” c. 1640-45, by Zurbarán, The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust. Depicted as a farmer in a brown robe, this son carries a spade implying his connection to the earth.

After the Frick exhibition, the paintings return to their home at Auckland Castle, which is being restored thanks to the largess of British philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer. The paintings’ fate was not always secure. When the church sought to sell the paintings and castle that had housed them for 250 years in 2010, Ruffer bought the paintings along with the castle, which he is transforming into a cultural destination. At the preview he explained his rationale: “One thing that can change people is to be confronted with something bigger than themselves.” Using art and architecture as a lure, he hopes to educate, unify and empower the local community and visitors. “I want to electrify the viewer,” he said, adding that art can overcome barriers that separate people. “I believe,” he said, “in building bridges.”

Although the paintings have more narrative, picturesque interest than aesthetic power, some are Baroque standouts. Joseph (the son known for his coat of many colors) is regally garbed. Even though the red lake pigment of his vestments has faded and the azure-sky background has grown pale, the painting is still vibrant, and the figure’s wary expression projects shrewd authority. The image of Asher, the ninth son, is notable for the basket of crusty bread he holds, reminding us of Zurbarán’s brilliance as a still-life painter.

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When Zurbarán produced the series for export from Seville, his fortunes were waning. His hard-edged style, abstract backgrounds and gift for making saints seem both natural and supernatural had fallen out of favor for religious works. At that low point, Zurbarán had to sell his pigments and paintbrushes and seek commissions from the Spanish colonies. He fell into obscurity until being rediscovered in mid-19th-century France, hailed as a precursor to modern art. (As late as 1874, a Boston critic — more appreciative of Zurbarán’s still lifes than his images of monks — sniffed, “Too much sack to so little bread!”)

“Saint Francis according to Pope Nicholas’s Vision,” ca.1640, by Zurbarán, National Museum of Art of Catalonia, Barcelona. This painting — so ghostly yet so lifelike — alarmed nuns at a convent and was hidden out of sight.

Zurbarán was undoubtedly a master of naturalism, even if his realism was in service to the theatrical. His haunting Saint Francis According to the Vision of Pope Nicholas (c. 1640) is so convincing a specter, it terrified nuns at a French convent and — for their peace of mind — was consigned to the attic. The Frick exhibition of this Golden Age Spanish painter sheds new gleams of light on a facet of his work previously hidden in the shadows: his flair for the exotic. An Old Testament subject — rare in his oeuvre — conferred on him license to let his imagination run wild.

In the Counter-Reformation period of dramatic Baroque art, religious paintings carried the burden of instructing, illuminating and inspiring viewers. Zurbarán’s “Jacob and Sons” ticked all those boxes and did it in a transnational way — globalistic before the term existed. This painter in Catholic Spain drew inspiration from northern European, Protestant printmakers to create a cycle of paintings based on the distant, Jewish past and destined for colonies an ocean away.

Today, social-practice art alludes to racial, gender, environmental and political injustices, with the aim of catalyzing thought and perhaps reform. One issue where art can cast light is on the dark trend of today’s hyper-nationalism. In 1756, Trevor embodied his talking points on the need for inclusion by hanging paintings on his walls. One wonders if art today can counteract the rising fear of foreign influence evident in England’s Brexit vote, in far-right, anti-immigrant parties in Europe and in the Trumpian bellow for “America first.”

With The Auckland Project (opening in December 2018), Ruffer, its chairman, hopes to employ art as a rebuke to those who would build walls that cloister us into opposing tribes. Auckland Castle will be the centerpiece of an ambitious, new cultural compound centered on, as its brochure says, “art, faith and heritage.” The 900-year-old castle along with a Spanish Gallery to house a collection of Spanish art — with Zurbarán as its star — is intended to revive the economy of this former mining hub, an economically depressed, rust-belt region in northeastern Britain.

Apparently, the series’s message of links binding the family of man still reverberates in Spain today. Ever since 2015, when Syrians were fleeing their war-torn country in droves and other European nations were barring their entry, a huge banner reading “REFUGEES WELCOME” has hung at Madrid City Hall. Unlike President Trump’s attempts to block refugees and immigrants from US soil, the banner still proclaims Spain’s empathy and commitment to human rights.

More than 350 years ago, Zurbarán’s scarily realistic images revived phantoms like St. Francis and St. Serapion. Maybe his paintings that unite the dispersed tribes of Israel can also inject new life among the ruins and move viewers to acknowledge ties of human kinship.