Jacob and His Twelve Sons by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

Awaiting the visitor in the oval treasury of The Frick Collection in New York City are 13 portraits by the Spanish artist, Francisco de Zurbarán, who was born in the Extremadura region of Spain in 1598. His career as a painter evolved without much formal training as he became much sought after in the city of Seville where the Spanish global empire was demanding pictures for religious and political patrons. There he overlapped with Diego Velazquez and saw many prints from Italian and Flemish masters like Caravaggio and Jacques de Gheyn.

This series of paintings has an as yet unknown patron who asked Zurbarán to paint large oil portraits of Jacob and his twelve sons who were to become the leaders of the tribes of Israel as noted in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. These works came up for sale in 1756 and the then-Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor, brought them to his northern castle where they resided in his dining room for almost 250 years.

Frick Collection rotunda

Long Dining Room, Auckland Castle

In a mining district in the northeastern region of the United Kingdom, Bishop Auckland is at present a small town with a population of about 25,000 people. With the Castle undergoing a major conservation and the development of The Auckland Project, the town is in the midst of a major resurgence thanks to a very gifted couple who have decided to focus their charitable giving on its future rehabilitation. Jonathan and Jane Ruffer, with their daughter, are blasting ahead full steam with a plan to remodel the old castle and its gardens, and they will add a Spanish gallery and center presenting the art of the local miners, and a local restaurant and hotel as well. Bishop Auckland train service will be expanded to make this a new tourist destination part of their urban renewal. In 2017 they allowed the 13 portraits to travel to Texas where they visited the Kimbell Art Museum for observation work, followed by their presentation at the Meadows Museum in Dallas before coming to The Frick Collection for this exhibition as their first visit to the United States.

Jonathan and Jane Ruffer

Jonathan Ruffer grew up in northeast England before attending both Marlborough College and the University of Cambridge. Educated as a barrister, he moved into international banking and today leads Ruffer LLC which manages 15.4 billion pounds. His financial success is funding these restoration efforts with his wife, Jane, who has left her practice as a physician.   They are particularly proud of the foresight of Bishop Trevor for purchasing these icons of the Jewish faith and bringing them to the UK at a time of great religious intolerance.   Auckland Castle was one of the principal residences of the Prince Bishop of Durham from the eleventh century. These gentlemen were very powerful government leaders under the early Norman kings. They amassed great wealth from coal and lead extraction over the centuries. Bishop Trevor was educated at Queen’s College in Oxford and became a passionate art collector during his reign (1752-1771). In addition to the Zurbarán purchase, he had a set of paintings of the 12 apostles in his church and works by Titian and Veronese in his residence. [1]

Auckland Castle, with its commanding presence overlooking the river Wear, was host to many lavish hunting parties for Kings John, Edward II, James I, Charles I and Queen Victoria.   Today the land beneath the Castle plays host to another of the Ruffer’s projects – Kynren – An Epic Tale of England, a large scale outdoor live action show with a cast and crew of 1,500 people. In the summer months Durham University brings students to excavate the Roman ruins at Binchester Roman Fort less than a mile from the castle grounds.

The paintings in The Frick Collection are a dazzling array of portraits in a multitude of postures and outfits. One of the works of Benjamin slipped away in the early auction and is on loan from the Grimsthorpe Castle where it resides in Lincolnshire. Radiography and x-rays in the Kimbell laboratories allowed conservationist Claire Barry to identify Zurbarán’s materials, preparatory layers, and workshop techniques. Her essay in the catalog documents what she calls Zurbarán’s poetic virtuosity of masterful handling of his paint. With rapid brush strokes he constructed a landscape behind the portraits, and added details such as the sandals, walking sticks and fabrics of many colors which may have been imported to Spain from its new American territories. Material culture specialists and religious historians are being gathered for symposia on the series while they are in New York this spring according to Susan Galassi, The Frick curator in charge of the installation.

Portrait of Dan

One of my favorites in the series is a portrait of Asher which the Old Testament describes as follows: “Asher’s food shall be rich and he shall provide royal delicacies.” [2] Asher is painted in the midst of his wheat fields with an opulent cloak in contrast to his simple shepherd’s stick. One ecclesiastical historian noted that the loaves of bread prefigure Jesus as bringing bread to the faithful in the Christian Eucharist.   The head turban will no doubt be examined as a remnant of the Muslim occupation of Spain before the ascendance of the Catholic kings under Ferdinand and Isabella in the 15th century. His very smart shoes look like they could have walked out of any shop on Madison Avenue today.

Portrait of Asher

In this time of extreme political correctness, Jacob would have been a controversial leader as he married three times and had four additional sons with two hand maidens. His blessings to each of the twelve sons on his deathbed foretell the many aspects of the settling of Israel before the birth of Jesus when it took an army to build a nation. Zurbarán brings us these details in this magnificent loan from The Auckland Project which we applaud for its contribution to the cultural leadership of the United Kingdom as an example for us all to emulate with our charitable efforts.


The Frick Collection

January 31, 2018 – April 22, 2018

[1] Christopher Ferguson, Auckland Castle and the Purchase of Zurburán’s Jacob and his Twelve Sons, The Frick Collection, p. 44, 2018.

[2] Genesis 49:20. Old Testament.