Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cow Currency As A System Of Pricing

Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528), The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, ca. 1498,
black ink on carved pearwood,
15 1/2 × 11 1/8 × 1 in. (39.4 × 28.3 × 2.6 cm)*
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site
During the northern Renaissance a carved wood printing block by the renowned 15th/ 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer, and a fake sculptural relief attributed to him were more expensive than one of his original prints.  What caused these differences in price and other questions concerning the complexity of valuation are addressed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's intriguing exhibition Relative Values:  The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance.  

Many of the show's 63 objects, all but one from the museum's collections, have never been out of storage and most will be new to visitors.  Some have not been seen since being acquired in 1917.

Saint Veronica, Flemish, probably Brussels, ca. 1525, 
wool, silk, gilded silver metal-wrapped threads 
(18-21 warps per inch, 7-8 per cm.), 
0verall: 68 × 51 in. (172.7 × 129.5 cm)
Photo:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site
The show's curator, Elizabeth Cleland, Associate Curator, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, a specialist in tapestries, had long sought to inform the public about the prestige and value of tapestries when they were new.  From the late 14th century through the early 18th century, tapestries far surpassed the cost and significance of paintings.  Today this is reversed. 

Since pricing is meaningful only relative to other costs, Ms. Cleland set about researching the comparison prices of objects during the northern Renaissance.  Her archival studies focused on 16th-century contracts, guild prices, household inventories, evaluations of royal collections and other financial records.  It was difficult, however, to translate relative purchasing power.  There were numerous currencies in use and two monetary bases, gold and silver, used throughout the period.  To clarify valuations, Ms. Cleland first converted the average price of the exhibit's objects into their silver equivalent.  But she felt prices in silver weight would not be meaningful and effective to the viewers.  Instead, she came up with a unique idea.  

Follower of Quentin Metsys (Netherlandish, mid-16th century) 
and Master of the Liège Disciples at Emmaus (Netherlandish, active mid-16th century), 
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, ca. 1540, 
oil on wood, 37 1/2 x 30 1/4 in. (95.3 x 76.8 cm)
Photo:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

In the northern Renaissance, milking cows were an important resource 
throughout Europe.  Their prices held steady at 175 grams of silver per cow.  Ms. Cleland thought objects could be better expressed in the form of "cow" currency.   As such, in the 16th century a door tapestry of St. Veronica, ca. 1525, would be valued at 52 cows which was more than ten times the contemporaneous price of a painting about the same size.  Thus, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, ca. 1540, could be had at 5 cows.  Ms. Cleland also calculated what other things one cow could buy: for example, the wages for 59 days of an unskilled laborer in London and Antwerp or, 35 days of a skilled worker in the same market.  

Why were tapestries so highly valued in the 16th century?   The range of values depends on many things, but can be divided into intrinsic and extrinsic features.  The materials used to make the object may be quite costly or rare and the work involved in making the article may take a long time.  Artistic value, geographic distance from the market place or a belief in the object's magic or religious power also influence price. Tapestries were made of wool, silk and often thread wrapped in strips of silver or gold.  The tapestries were usually enormous, covering wall to wall and ceiling to floor and came in sets of five to up to ten different tapestries. They depicted narrative scenes of historical, religious or allegorical nature. 

Making tapestries took months and involved highly trained artisans such as weavers, designers and painters.  Only the wealthiest could afford them which meant generally royalty. They were used to cover drafty and dark palace rooms, offering warmth and color.  Those threaded with metal would glimmer in candlelight. They were not intended for permanent display and could be rolled up easily to store and transport from one palace to another. Compared to tapestries, paintings were uncomplicated and reasonably priced for the mercantile class.

View of glass and stoneware objects arranged in hierarchy of value 
in the exhibition Relative Values:  The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, August 7, 2017 - June 23, 2018
Photo:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

To illustrate the hierarchy of value visually, Michael Langley, an exhibition designer at the museum, devised a clever  installation.   He positioned objects in groupings indicating the relative cost of the raw material by height.  The higher the placement the pricier the material. He also used color as a value indicator by associating works with particular hues ranked according to the cost of 16th-century dyes. The most expensive item in a  group was set before black which was the costliest dye, the deepest and richest black achieved from imported North American logwood.   Purple came next derived from Mediterranean murex shells, then red from the madder plant followed by yellow weld, which also came from a plant, and beige, referring to cheap, undyed cloth.   Thus, placement and color indicate the object's 16th-century relative worth.

Bird, German, Nuremberg,  ca. 1580 with modern renovations, 
rock crystal, with gilded silver and rubies, height (with base): 12 1/8 in. (30.8 cm)
Photo:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

The exhibit's biggest-ticket item, valued at 275 cows, is a rock crystal bird with ruby eyes and a collar and legs of gilded silver.  In the 16th century rock crystal was equated pound for pound with gold.  It was prized for its hardness, transparency and radiance.  

Low-end items are included as well.  1/12 cow could purchase the show's cheapest pieces: a salt-glazed stoneware jug, which was damaged in firing but kept and used, or one pilgrim badge made of a tin alloy, two are in the show.  Pilgrim badges were popular.  They were souvenirs indicating that the wearer had made a religious journey. A badge, moreover, acted as an amulet giving the owner protection from disease and other misfortunes.  

Joachim Friess (ca. 1579–1620, master 1610), Diana and the Stag, ca. 1620,
partially gilded silver, enamel, jewels (case); iron, wood (movement),
overall: 14 3/4 × 9 1/2 in. (37.5 × 24.1 cm),
Photo:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

Technologically advanced devices are among those that cost the most. Examples include a 1579 Austrian celestial globe with clockwork, valued at 10o cows, a 1568 German astronomical table clock with an alarm assessed at 59 cows and an early 17th-century mechanical drinking game wine vessel,  Diana and the Stag, by a famous German goldsmith, evaluated at 79 cows.  The stag's head could be screwed off and the animal's body filled with wine. The piece could be wound up so that it would vibrate about the dining table.**  When it stopped, the guest closest to the stag's head would have to unscrew it and drink the vessel's entire contents. 

Displayed in a nearby vitrine is a 16th/ 17th-century French lead-glazed earthenware puzzle bottle worth only 1/8 cow.  Made for the low-end drinking public, the bottle has three spouts so that the drinker had to decide which one to drink from to avoid getting spattered with wine. Other high- and low-end comparisons are an additional treat for visitors. 

Puzzle bottle, French, 16th-17th century, lead glazed earthenware,
overall: 10 × 9 in. (25.4 × 22.9 cm)
Photo:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

As for the Dürer items, the woodcut block was a form of commercial investment.  Woodcut prints were mass produced and less expensive than engravings which were made in much smaller numbers.  Carved wood blocks could yield 1000s of impressions, many more than those realized from metal plates which were more pliable and wore out sooner.  Although inexpensive, many woodcut prints could be sold to produce a handsome profit.  Consequently, the wood block was valued at 16 cows and the lowly paper print at 1/2 cow.  

The fake Dürer sculptural plaque, 6 x 2 5/8 inches, was cut from a low-grade stone.  Dürer's works were in great demand especially after his death. Although the date 1509 appears on the plaque, it was actually made 70 years after the artist's death.  The plaque's sculptor sought to pass his work off as a Dürer by the early date and placing the artist's well-known monogram on the composition.  Falsely represented as an original, the sculpture was valued at 9 cows.

The exhibition gives visitors much to think about not least of which is how values change over time.   These objects may have previously been overlooked.  Now is a good time to see them.  

*Albrecht Dürer's The Martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria woodcut print:

Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528), The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
n.d., woodcut,
image: 15 7/16 x 11 5/16 in. (39.2 x 28.7 cm)
sheet: 15 3/4 x 11 5/8 in. (40 x 29.6 cm)
Accession Number:  19.73.154
Photo:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

**Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has a similar mechanical vessel.  To view it in action, see below:

Relative Values:  The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance
August 7, 2017 - June 23, 2018
1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Open Seven Days a Week
Sunday – Thursday 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1, and the first Monday in May. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Many Manifestations of Female Buddhas

Karsang Lama, 1000 Green Tara, 2013 - 2015
natural mineral color and 24k pure gold on cotton canvas,
39 1/5 x 50 1/5 ins. (100.3 x 127.5 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Dharmapala Thangka Centre, Kathmandu, Nepal

Female buddhas and bodhisattvas, feminine deities, yoginis (female yogis), women practitioners and teachers of Buddhism and more fill a hall and gallery walls at the Tibet House US in the exhibition Divine Feminine: New Masterpieces from Nepal.  These divine beings appear in fifty thangka paintings by the master painter Karsang Lama who is designated a national treasure in Nepal and considered Katmandu's top thangka painter.  The paintings' powerful feminine icons are meant to inspire and guide worshippers in the practice of Buddhism.  

Thangka paintings are scroll paintings in natural colors on prepared cotton cloth.  They depict Buddhist figures and mandalas, complex geometric configurations representing the universe.  Every detail of the painting has meaning.  

The art form evolved in India some fifteen hundred years ago, spread to Nepal and then to Tibet. The artist first forms a visualization of what is to be represented.  If the work is complex, the artist draws what he wants to paint on transparent paper, then transfers his outline to canvas. For simple thangkas, the picture is created directly on the cloth.  The entire design is done freehand except for rectilinear and circular forms when a ruler or compass is employed. After the outline is completed, paint is applied. At this stage, there is no erasing or redoing. Colors are prepared by mixing powders derived from minerals and plants with water and animal glue made from the leather of yak that allows for the paint to adhere to the fabric surface.

Master painter Karsang Lama completing a lion figure left unfinished
 by another artist on the base of a 21st century work commissioned by  Tibet House US
Photo:  Margaret AuYeung, March 22, 2018, Tibet House US

The blending of glue and pigment in traditional style thangka painting is done on the back of the artist's hand which acts as a palette.  Very thin paint brushes are used and paint is best described as dabbed on the surface in layers.  The work must follow a prescribed set of rules as to content, symbols, color, proportion and measurements. The art form requires tremendous mental discipline.  Training involves the study of meditative religious practice besides art.  To become a master painter could take some thirty years or more.

The world renowned thangka painter Karsang Lama is the seventh generation painter from his family. His ancestors were holy monks who migrated from Tibet to northern Nepal and founded a monastery and a foundation where Buddhism and painting were taught.  Karsang Lama studied for 10 years, from age 5 to 15, at a monastery that his great-great-grandfather established.  

A word about Buddhism:  Buddhism is a religion many westerners find baffling.  It teaches that the way for beings to end the suffering in life is enlightenment achieved through wisdom, virtue and concentration. Like western religions, Buddhism has many schools or branches each with their own important figures, visual symbols and mythology.  Tibetan Buddhism, for example, has over 1,000 deities.  Visual representations are aids in understanding for the initiated and uninitiated. As such, the thangkas on view at Tibet House US offer much for those who know and those who seek to know.

Karsang Lama, 1000 White Tara, 2012 - 2014
mineral color and 24k pure gold on cotton canvas,
38 2/7 x 52 1/5 ins. (97.3 x 132.6 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Dharmapala Thangka Centre, Kathmandu, Nepal

Eleven of the thangkas on view depict the goddess Tara, a female buddha and bodhisattva.  She is regarded as the mother of all buddhas and savior of sentient beings from worldly miseries.  If confused about the term buddha, it does not necessarily refer to the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, but simply means enlightened one.  There were many buddhas before Siddhartha and there are and will be many buddhas thereafter. Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who is able to enter paradise, nirvana, but chose to stay behind to help others reach nirvana and escape from endless suffering.  

There are various legends associated with Tara's origins and various forms she takes like the Green Tara and White Tara.  In Buddhist iconography, deities have specific colors to indicate their nature and functions.  As the Green Tara, she is the goddess of action and activity. She is slender and graceful and  thought of as the original Tara.  Her pose with right leg extended indicates she can spring into action to help those in trouble.

The White Tara is associated with purity, truth and knowledge. She has seven eyes, one in each palm and on each foot, one in the center of her forehead and her two normal human eyes.  With these she is able to see all those in need. 

Tara is portrayed as a bodhisattva adorned with necklaces, bracelets, earrings and a crown.  She has not given everything away since she remains connected to this world.  Buddhas, in contrast, are represented in a monk's plain robe, usually covering only one shoulder. For buddhas, all earthly goods have been relinquished.  

Hand gestures, called mudras, and numbers, like everything in a thangka painting, have  significance.  For example, the right hand of the White and Green Tara makes the sign  for "charity."  1000 as in 1000 Green Tara and 1000 White Tara, indicates infinity and the path to nirvana.  If the digits are added one by one, 1+0+0+0, they equal one which refers to truth and the one way leading to enlightenment.  The goddess has been through the path and is guiding worshippers towards the same.  The number 108, as in two works in the exhibit 108 Green Tara and 108 Buddha, when added digit by digit equals 9.  This is the number of energy and the 9 planets of  the universe that give off great power. The combination of 1 and 9 makes the human body energetic and full of knowledge.  

Karsang Lama, Vajrayogini, 2011
mineral color and 24k pure gold on cotton canvas,
29 1/6  x 38 6/7 ins. (74.1 x 98.7 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Dharmapala Thangka Centre, Kathmandu, Nepal

Vajrayogini is a tantric female deity who can be human or non-human and can fly through the sky. Tantra means the channeling of energies within the body to achieve enlightenment.  It is believed that yogis developed Tantra.  

Vajrayogini has supernatural wisdom and power that can help eliminate obstacles and obstructions. She also has the ability to bestow omniscience, complete understanding and enlightenment.  She is portrayed with many ornaments covering her nude body including a necklace and crown of skulls.  In her left hand she holds a blood filled skullcap. She stands in the center of the fire of wisdom trampling on her own emanations.  Her depiction is both erotic and fierce.  Many of her attributes refer to tantric philosophy and rituals.  Skulls, for instance, are associated with charnel grounds, above ground crematory and cemetery areas, considered the home ground for tantric practitioners.  There are all sorts of things going on in this thangka. Wall labels assist the visitors' understanding but leave much unexplained.  This may have the effect of wanting to know more.  Perhaps this is one of the artist's intentions:    wanting to know more is wanting to be enlightened.

Karsang Lama, Green Tara Mandala (1), 2014
natural mineral color and 24k pure gold on cotton canvas,
17 1/2 x 17 1/2 ins. (44.5 x 44.5 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Dharmapala Thangka Centre, Kathmandu, Nepal

As an instrument of mediation, the mandala is the focus of the practitioner's mind, mentally entering the image through the three or four outer circles proceeding towards the center.  While the geometrical mandala represents the cosmic universe, the land of the buddha, the circles surrounding it symbolize such things as fire which the consciousness must pass through to burn ignorance and darkness.

Karsang Lama, Machig Lapdron, 1998 - 2000
mineral color and 24k pure gold on cotton canvas,
44 1/2 x 65 3/5 ins. (113 x 166.6 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Dharmapala Thangka Centre, Kathmandu, Nepal

The masterpiece of the exhibition is Karsang Lama's painting of Machig Lapdron. She was an 11th-century Tibetan tantric Buddhist teacher and yogini and is the most famous woman of wisdom in Tibet.   She is depicted with a crown of five skulls and covered with gold jewelry. Her dancing posture with right leg raised and left bent as if in motion attest to her   role as the representative of enlightened female energy.  The main figures to her left and right are her two sons and, above her, bodhisattva Avaloketeshwara, the earthly manifestation of Buddha Amitabha who is the buddha of longevity.  All around the main figures are teachers, gurus, siddhas (holy men), deities, bodhisattvas and buddhas.  

Karsang Lama, Medical Thangka Plate No. 53, 2008
mineral color and 24k pure gold on cotton canvas,
22 2/5  x 26 1/6 ins. (56.9 x 66.5 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Dharmapala Thangka Centre, Kathmandu, Nepal

The exhibit also includes images of male buddhas and bodhisattvas, a variety of different types of mandalas, scenes of the life of the buddha, illustrious religious leaders and yogis. There are even illustrations of medical plates from a medieval medical chart.  

For followers of Buddhism, these thangkas will have deep spiritual meanings. Their imagery and beauty, however, will appeal to everyone.

Divine Feminine:
New Masterpieces from Nepal
March 15, 2018 - May 11, 2018
22 West 15th Street, Manhattan
Gallery Hours:  
Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Rare Painting Cycle

Expresses Acceptance and Tolerance    

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Jacob, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 79 1/8 x 40 5/16 in. (201 x 102.4 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo:  Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

"And Jacob called unto his sons, and said,
Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you 
that which shall befall you in the last days.

Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye 
sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel
 your father."
Genesis 49: 1-2  (King James Version)

Thus begun Jacob's last words to his sons as related in the Old Testament (Genesis 49).  There were twelve, begot by the patriarch's two wives and two concubines.  From them came the tribes of Israel. Jacob blessed his children and told them about their futures.  Shortly after that he died. Christians identify Jacob as the prefiguration of Christ and his twelve sons as the ancestors of the apostles.  

Although Jacob and his sons are important biblical figures, their visual representations are rare.  There are only three known painting cycles: a magnificent series by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664) in England and two related ones in Lima, Peru and Puebla, Mexico. The 
Zurbarán paintings are now on view in the exhibition Zurbarán's Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle, in the East Gallery of the Frick Collection.

Twelve of the paintings are from Auckland Castle, County Durham, England, the residence for more than 900 years of the Prince Bishops of Durham.  The paintings hung in the castle for 250 years and only the temporary closing of the Bishop's Palace for renovations made this presentation possible.  One canvas, Benjamin, part of the original series, is on loan from Grimsthorpe Castle in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England.  This is the first time all these paintings have come to the United States and the first time any complete Zurbarán series is shown here.

Zurbarán was one of the most celebrated artists in Spain with a large workshop in Seville where he spent most of his career.  He produced a variety of work for ecclesiastical institutions all over Spain and its colonies.  He was noted for his figurative compositions and sets of paintings as well as still lifes.  He also assisted Diego Velázquez (1599 - 1650), court painter to the King Philip IV of Spain, on a royal commission. 

The Jacob cycle was an enormous undertaking - thirteen larger-than-life-size figures filling  six-and-a-half foot canvases, using about ninety feet of canvas in total.  Each figure was individualized and designed to communicate a particular destiny.  Zurbarán employed a team for the project since it was much too large for one artist to complete.  The work was executed between 1640 and 1645.  

No extant document records the contract for the cycle which was too unusual for the artist to create for the general market.  Scholars conjecture that it was commissioned by someone in the Spanish colonies. They make this assumption for several reasons.  There was no precedent for a series like this in Spain and the artist had never produced one.  The indigenous people of the New World were thought to have descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Consequently such a theme as Jacob and his sons would make sense.  Also, during this period, Zurbarán had turned increasingly to the Americas for clients. Seville experienced an economic downturn and artists were seeking patronage elsewhere.  Furthermore, the painter’s style was going out of favor.  It would be superseded by the preference for the softer, lighter manner as seen in the work by the younger artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 - 1682).  

Some suggest the paintings may have been meant for a Jewish client - there were an estimated 30,000 Jews living in the Americas.  Others however propose that because the cycle's size required expansive installation space, it was probably bound for a monastery or church. The figures appear as if in a processional which was a popular religious activity in Spain as well as the colonies.  Whoever the intended owner, the series was never sent.  

For many of the figures' poses, costumes and attributes, Zurbarán turned to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century northern European prints especially the series of engravings The Twelve Sons of Jacob by Jacques de Gheyn II after designs by Karel van Mander I.* Some seventy prints were left in the artist's studio at his death in 1664 including the set by Jacques de Gheyn II.   

Although elements of the paintings may have originated in other artworks, each figure's distinct facial characteristics were most likely based on life studies, perhaps the artist's studio assistants. 

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Reuben, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 78 9/16 x 40 9/16 in. (199.5 x 103 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo:  Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

"Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:

Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch."  
Genesis 49: 3-4  (King James Version)

Reuben is represented in a frontal view as a mature, gray-bearded man whose right hand rests on a column, the traditional symbol of courage and strength.    His left arm akimbo that is hand on hip and elbow outward-bowed, connotes assertiveness.  Yet, Reuben's eyes are downcast, his expression solemn.  He conveys sadness, an outcome of his misconduct and poor fate. Reuben, as Jacob's first born, had a high ranking in the family, but his tribe would not do well.   He had committed a transgression.  He had slept with one of his father's concubines.

Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528), The Flagellation, from The Small Passion, ca. 1509,
woodcut, sheet: 5 x 3 13/16 in. (12.7 x 9.7 cm)
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

For Reuben, Zurbarán borrowed the turban and downward tilted head from the standing figure of Pontius Pilate in Albrecht Dürer's woodcut, The Flagellation, from The Small Passion.  The column may also be derived from this print.  

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Judah, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 79 1/4 x 40 3/4 in. (201.3 x 103.5 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo:  Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Jacob compares his son Judah to "a lion's whelp."  He shall have a "scepter" and "ruler's staff."  Although the fourth son, Judah assumes a leadership role because of the misconduct of his three older siblings. Zurbarán portrays him as a king in sumptuous garb, a scepter in his right hand and a crown on his head.  A lion's head, alluding to his father's comparison, appears at the painting's left side.   He is an imposing figure looking straight ahead with a sense of determination.  

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629) after Karel van Mander I (1548 - 1606),
Judah, from The Twelve Sons of Jacob series, ca. 1589, engraving, 
sheet: 6 1/8 × 4 1/8 in. (15.5 × 10.5 cm)
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

For this representation, the artist followed the description of Judah in Genesis as well as turning for inspiration to de Gheyn's Judah engraving for the scepter, crown and lion.  

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664), Issachar, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 78 1/2 x 40 1/2 inches (199.4 x 102.9 cm)
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo: Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Issachar is characterized as a "strong donkey" with a body bowed by his burden.  He is the most poorly dressed of the brothers which befits his laborer's life.  Gnarled toes and dirty toenails attest to hard and rough manual labor.  His donkey and knapsack are also sourced from the de Gheyn print while Issachar's profile view and left arm positioned across his body is taken from Martin Schongauer's print of the apostle St. Matthias.

  Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664), Detail of Issachar, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 78 1/2 x 40 1/2 inches (199.4 x 102.9 cm)
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo: Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Recent technical analysis suggests that the landscapes in the Issachar and Asher paintings were likely made by Zurbarán himself to serve his assistants as models for backgrounds in the other paintings of the series.  All the paintings have the same low horizon line and the figures could be seen as standing before a panorama of a rural landscape under a cloudy sky, an effect similar to triptychs in which the background continues from panel to panel. 

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664), Asher, ca. 1640–45, 
oil on canvas, 79 1/4 x 40 15/16 (201.3 x 104 cm)
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo: Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

In Genesis 49.20 (KJV) Jacob says, "Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties."  Asher is a well-to-do farmer. His rich clothing attest to his status and adds to the decorative quality of the painting.  The overfull bread basket is a beautiful demonstration of Zurbarán's command of still life

Zurbarán has a singular skill in depicting ornate garments.  He was the son of a haberdasher and must have been used to seeing assorted fabrics and fine thread.  In addition, Seville was the largest city in Spain in the seventeenth-century and its busiest port.  For most of the century it dominated trade with Spain's colonies. Middle Eastern merchants and New World goods coming off ships would be a daily experience for the artist and expose him to exotic dress and imported textiles which he incorporated in his work.   For example, the striped pants of Zebulun in the Jacob series is linked to fabrics from the Americas.  

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664), Benjamin, ca. 1640–45, 
oil on canvas, 78 3/8 x 40 1/2 (199.2 x 103 cm)
© Grimsthorpe and Drummond Castle Trust
Photo: Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Benjamin is represented as a handsome youth in rather foppish clothing.  He is the the youngest son, very much loved by Jacob. In Genesis he is compared to a "ravenous wolf" alluding to the fierceness of his tribe. The wolf head and chain is again another motif borrowed from the de Gheyn print.  A freshness and sharpness sets this canvas apart from the others.

After the artist's death the cycle's whereabouts were lost.  In the eighteenth century the paintings turned up again in England.  They were passed on to a director of the South Seas Company who lost his fortune in the South Sea Bubble.  A Jewish merchant purchased them at auction in the 1720s.  In 1756 all but one of the paintings were bought by Bishop Richard Trevor of Auckland Castle, County Durham. Bishop Trevor wanted to buy all the works which were auctioned individually but was outbid for the Benjamin.  This painting, with its romantic aura, would have appealed more than the others to eighteenth-century sensibilities. Consider the portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727 - 1788). Benjamin's contemporary
 appeal may have accounted for the run up in its price.  Bishop Trevor at once had an exact copy made to complete the set.   

Some words about the Bishops of Durham:  they were Prince Bishops, leading churchmen of England with secular authority and the responsibility of protecting England’s Northern frontier.   They were members of the House of Lords and were  politically powerful.  

Bishop Trevor was an advocate of the rights for those disenfranchised especially the Jews who had been invited back to England by Oliver Cromwell a hundred years earlier but were not given any rights.  The Bishop supported them and organized on their behalf.  In 1753, under his guidance, parliament passed the Jewish Naturalization Act.  It was overturned the following year.  

Zurbarán and other works on display in the Long Dining Room at Auckland Castle
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo credit: photo Colin Davison
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Thwarted in his emancipation endeavor, the Bishop  purchased the painting cycle with the intention of shaming British leaders.  He had Auckland Castle's State Dining Room specifically redesigned for the series so when he met with important statesmen, they would be under the gaze of the thirteen Jews.  As such, the cycle became a lesson in acceptance and tolerance.  Jacob accepted his sons for what they were no matter what their actions.  Bishop Trevor similarly accepted all people no matter what their beliefs.  

Visitors may be perplexed by a realistically rendered block with a Roman numeral appearing in the lower left or right corner of each canvas.  The number corresponds to the order each son is mentioned in the Bible which is different from their birth order.  At the Frick, as in the Bishop's dining room, the series is installed as intended in the Biblical sequence.  

Please, go see these splendid paintings while remembering the tolerance and acceptance by Jacob and, echoed by Bishop Trevor.  

*The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has a set of The Twelve Sons of Jacob by Jacques de Gheyn II.  The engravings may be viewed online.  Search the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Collections.  De Gheyn II was an inventive artist who is credited with the earliest known Vanitas painting.  See ArtWithHillary July 2015.

Zurbarán's Jacob and His Twelve Sons: 
Paintings from Auckland Castle
January 31, 2018 - April 22, 2018
1 East 70th Street, Manhattan
Tuesday through Saturday, 
10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Sundays, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays and holidays

First Fridays:  
On the first Friday of the month
(except September and January)
the museum is open until 9 p.m.