According to Genesis, Jacob fathered twelve sons who went on to found the Twelve Tribes of Israel. As he lay dying, he called them together and foretold the destiny of each. The episode in question is commonly referred to as the Blessings of Jacob, but as Zurbarán’s withered depiction suggests, his observations were not always positive. In addition to Simeon and Levi, whom Jacob condemned as ruthless murderers, he specifically censured Reuben, his firstborn, who betrayed him by sleeping with Bilhah, the eldest of his concubines. He affirmed as a result that the Tribe of Reuben would never prosper.
Zurbarán’s portrait, which is part of a sequence of thirteen, captures Jacob at the point of delivering his words to his sons, and for this reason, it has most commonly been discussed as part of a series rather than as a composition in its own right. The twelve other paintings, which depict each of the sons in turn, are remarkable for their sharply defined individuality. Of particular note are the costumes in which his sons are dressed and the various symbolic objects with which they are associated. As the twelve men stand erect in differing, often symbolic, landscapes, they adopt a variety of postures but do not relate to one another physically or psychologically. This format is typical of Zurbarán, who specialized in producing large-scale cycles of paintings for institutions such as churches and convents, a notable example being his treatments of virgin martyrs such as Sts Agnes, Barbara, and Dorothy, now displayed at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville.
The treatment of Jacob depicts a man bowed under the weight of his years and the burden of his responsibilities. His skin is wrinkled, his beard is long and white, and his eyes are almost fully closed. With the prospect of death looming large in his mind, he stands in poignant contradistinction to the verdant summer foliage that serves as a reminder of his once youthful vigour and vitality. The painting in this sense offers an exploration of the ineluctable nature of the life cycle, encouraging observers to follow in his footsteps by putting their affairs in order so as to embrace their fate with confidence and fortitude.
The origin of the painting is uncertain, but since the theme of the Twelve Tribes of Israel held a particular resonance in the newly discovered Americas, it may be that it was intended for speculative sale in one of its open markets. The most romantic theory, advanced by César Pemán, holds that it was intercepted by English corsairs, who plundered it as bounty and later sold it to a London dealer. It was then acquired at auction by Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham.
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Francisco de Zurbarán (Fuente de Cantos, Badajoz, c. 1598 – Madrid, 1664).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
201 x 102.4 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
Inscribed ‘Jacob’ on stone at bottom left.
Acquired by The Zurbarán Trust, 2012.
Sir William Chapman, sale c. 1722 (?) lots 41–53 (for the series of thirteen); James Mendez of Mitcham, posthumous sale by Langford, February 25–26, lots 21–33 (for the series of thirteen); acquired by Bishop Richard Trevor at auction in London in 1756.
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland.
César Pemán, ‘La serie de los hijos de Jacob y otras pinturas zurbaranescas’, Archivo Español de Arte, 21 (1948): 153–72;
Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño, La pintura española fuera de España: historia y catálogo (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1958), p. 344 (nos. 3110–3122);
Eric Young, Four Centuries of Spanish Painting: 17th June – 17th September 1967, The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham (Gateshead: Team Valley Printers, 1967), pp. 50–52 (no. 66);
Gabriele Finaldi, ‘Zurbarán’s Jacob and his Twelve Sons: A Family Reunion at the National Gallery’, Apollo, 140 (1994, no. 392): 1–16;
Robert McManners, Zurbarans [sic] at Auckland Castle (Bishop Auckland: Gemini Productions, 2010);
Clare Baron and Andy Beresford, ‘Zurbarán’s Jacob and his Twelve Sons’, in Spanish Art in County Durham, ed. Clare Baron & Andy Beresford (Bishop Auckland: Auckland Castle Trust, The Bowes Museum, & Durham University, 2014), pp. 26–43;
Susan Grace Galassi, Edward Payne, & Mark A. Roglán, ed., Zurbarán, ‘Jacob and his Twelve Sons’: Paintings from Auckland Castle (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2018).