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Francisco de Zurbarán

The long dining room in Auckland Castle Jacob and his twelve sons (Spanish: Los doce hijos de Jacob) is a series of thirteen paintings by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán. © Michelle Chaplow
The long dining room in Auckland Castle Jacob and his twelve sons (Spanish: Los doce hijos de Jacob) is a series of thirteen paintings by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán.

Francisco de Zurbarán - RELIGIOUS ARTIST (1598 - 1664)

Francisco de Zurbarán was one of Spain’s most famous artists of the 17th Century a time when Spanish art was its most influential. His contemporaries were Velazquez and Murillo.  Zurbarán had the unusual experience for an artist both to witness the ascent of his art to hight acclaim and to suffer its fall from fashion almost to obscurity. “His story is one of the most dramatic in the history of artistic taste” said Professor Jonathon Brown in 1991.

Zurbarán was born in Fuente de Cantos, Extremadura in 1598. Son of a shopkeeper little is known of his childhood, but something prompted his father to fund his son in an art apprenticeship under Seville artist Pedro Diáz de Villanueva. Zurbaran’s earliest known work ‘The Immaculate Conception’ is from this time.

In 1617 he moved to Llerena near Badajoz  and set up his own workshop. Married to Maria Paez Jimenez they had three children but sadly Maria died in 1623. Zurbarán became spiritually involved with the Spanish Quietism religious movement and influenced him to paint very sombre images. Artistic commissions were forthcoming mostly from Seville patrons and major ones from the Seville monasteries.

In 1629 with his second wife Beatriz de Morales accepted an invitation from Seville city council to move his workshop to Seville. In 1634 Diego de Velazquez commissioned him to paint two battle scenes in the Royal Palace in Madrid for King Philip IV. This was the peak of his career.

Tragedy struck again when Beatriz died suddenly. His work became more sombre and did not match the changing taste of the art world for a lighter mood. Bartolome Esteban Murrillo was now the younger rising star. He married a third time to Leonor de Tordera, five of their six children died in infancy.

His Spanish commissions evaporated and from 1647 onwards he accepted commissions from monasteries in South America in particular Lima and Buenos Aires. In 1649 he shipped works to merchants on a speculative basis.

He moved to Madrid in 1658 to seek inspiration and employment but found neither. His last recorded work was ‘The Virgin Child with St John the Baptist’ of 1662.

Zurbarán died in relative poverty and obscurity on 27th August 1664 in Madrid.

The Zurbaran’s at Auckland Castle of Jacob and his 12 sons.

Francisco de Zurbaran’s famous series, Jacob and his Twelve Sons (Los doce hijos de Jacob) circa 1640 can be found in two private collections in the UK. Eleven of the twelve works are in the long dining room in Auckland Castle.

The presence of such a powerful symbol of Judaism in the home of one of the most important figures of the Anglican church is surprising. They were brought there by Bishop Richard Trevour in 1756. These images have silently pleaded the case for religious, ethnic, and social tolerance to all that dine in the room for the last 250 years. Richard Trevour received ‘bad press’ at the time for displaying the images however he was a man who was prepared to risk his reputation to support the disadvantaged, in this case the disenfranchised Jews.

They were bought from a gallery in London, but he was outbid on the painting of Benjamin and therefor paid artist Arthur Pond to paint a replica. Having secured the ‘whole set’ he rebuilt the dining room; altering the windows, fireplace, doorway and ceiling to accommodate them. He had created Europe’s first purpose-built gallery for a single set of artworks.

Why did Zurbaran paint this series?

He rarely drew inspiration from the old testament. He was familiar with the rigours of painting a mayor series having spent most of 1635 working on the King Philip IV commission for the ten images of ‘The Labours of Hercules’ (now in Prado, Madrid). Whilst the artist may have felt justified in his choice of subject, the Spanish inquisition would have thought otherwise. He was risking their wrath and his safety by producing the Jacob series.

It has frequently been suggested that these works were destined for the New World when Corsiar pirates intervened and returned them to Europe as bounty. It is more likely they were commissioned by a powerful Jewish sherry merchant in Seville or Jerez perhaps using his bonded warehouse as an undercover synagogue.

The earliest traced written record of the paintings is found in England in the 1720s. They were confiscated from the estate of South Sea Company Director, Sir William Chapman (an estate made from the wine and sherry trade through Seville). He was fined three quarters of his assets from his involvement in the South Sea Bubble. 62 Spanish and Portuguese paintings were in the auction. They were purchased by Jaamez Mendes a prominent Portuguese Jewish merchant who lived at Eagle House in Surrey. The series came up for auction again in 1756 at Langford’s London, which is when Richard Trevour purchased them. 

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