Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica/Center for Spain in America/Meadows Museum, SMU/The Frick Collection/Auckland Castle Trust, 223 pp., $45.00
If the standard you expect from Francisco de Zurbarán is set by one of his devotional images—by, for instance, the Saint Serapion at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in which the dying saint is hung by ropes tied to his arms, and the painter has apparently lavished the most attention on the creamy white robes of the Mercedarian Order, leaving only the graying tones of the exhausted face and the hands to tell the story of torture and death—then it will not be without a little stab of disappointment that you survey the thirteen paintings, Jacob and His Twelve Sons, on display at the Frick. Extreme beauty lies in extreme suffering—that is what the painter of Saint Serapion seems to be saying. But this extremism—something to be at once admired and feared in Spanish art—is absent from the Jacob series.
Absent because inappropriate. One is not invited to contemplate, say, the life and sufferings of Reuben, Jacob’s first-born son, in the way one is encouraged to meditate upon the self-sacrifice of Serapion. Reuben was no saint. When the dying Jacob made his prophetic remarks about his sons (the so-called Blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49), he began by effectively cursing Reuben:
Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the first fruits of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power. Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it—you went up onto my couch!
Reuben’s descendants will not prosper because Reuben defiled his father’s bed by making love to Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah. One might say in Reuben’s defense that he was also the one who persuaded his brothers not to kill Joseph when they were planning to do just that, out of envious irritation at his self-serving dreams. But that did not redeem him in Jacob’s eyes. Strong as the pillar he grasps, Reuben stands there with downcast eyes, in one of a series of thirteen life-size paintings whose earliest history is unknown.
Unknown but not particularly mysterious in the setting of European painting. This notion of a series of subjects—and better still a numbered series—is a mainstay of painting and the graphic and decorative arts: the Four Evangelists, the Twelve Disciples, the Twelve Labors of Hercules, the Virtues and the Vices, the Planets, the Continents, the Nine Worthies (three Pagans, three Jews, and three Christians). Artists thrived on such series, just as they thrived on biblical narratives, including the story of Joseph and his Brethren. The engravers of Northern Europe loved to create sets of prints, which were then disseminated and freely plundered for their images. Potters, metalworkers, sculptors, and painters all used such material. Zurbarán himself is said to have owned seventy-four prints and he drew on such sources for these thirteen paintings.
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