Francisco de Zurbarán

This exhibition brings to the United States for the first time the complete set of Francisco de Zurbarán’s thirteen canvases representing the Old Testament patriarch Jacob and his sons, founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Twelve of the thirteen paintings have hung in the Long Dining Room of Auckland Castle in County Durham in northeast England for the past two hundred and sixty years. With a critical year-long technical analysis of the paintings conducted by Claire Barry, Director of Conservation at the Kimbell Art Museum, and new perspectives on the iconography and history of the paintings published in the accompanying catalogue, this is the most extensive study of this enigmatic body of work to date.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) was born in the small town of Fuente de Cantos (Extremadura). At the age of sixteen, he began an apprenticeship in Seville with a little-known artist, but he is considered largely self-taught. By 1629, Zurbarán had established his own workshop in Seville, at that time a flourishing artistic center, as well as the wealthiest and largest city in Spain due to its monopoly on trade with the New World.

Throughout the 1630s and early 1640s, Zurbarán and his prolific workshop produced complex multifigure compositions and series of paintings for the ecclesiastical institutions of Andalusia and other regions of Spain, as well as for the Spanish colonies. In 1634, Zurbarán assisted his fellow Sevillian Diego Velázquez on a royal commission in Madrid, although most of his career was spent in Seville. Zurbarán’s naturalism and austere compositions, as well as the emotional accessibility of his subjects, made his work well suited to the Counter-Reformation dictum that art both instruct and inspire. Known primarily for his monastic paintings, Zurbarán also painted still lifes and other secular subjects.

With the economic downturn in Seville in the 1640s, as well as a devastating plague that decimated the city’s population, Zurbarán turned increasingly to the Latin American market for commissions. The Jacob and His Twelve Sons series is believed to have been made for export to the New World, although its original destination remains unknown. In 1658, Zurbarán moved to Madrid. He died six years later and fell into obscurity for nearly two centuries.

In mid-nineteenth century France, where many of his paintings had been taken during the Napoleonic wars, Zurbarán’s spirituality and economy of means found renewed appreciation among artists of the modern school. Today, as in his lifetime, he is considered one of the leading masters of Spain’s Golden Age.