Jacob, the patriarch, appears in an olive-colored turban and a simple red tunic, his white beard cascading to the top of the cane over which he hunches. His 12 sons, by contrast, fill the height of each six-and-a-half-foot canvas; they pose frontally, in profile or from behind, and they wear a startling variety of crisp, supple fabrics, whose glamour or grittiness echoes Jacob’s foretelling of their destinies in the Book of Genesis. (One theory about Zurbarán’s fashion fixation: His father was a haberdasher.)
Reuben, the eldest son, echoes Jacob by wearing a lofty turban, while Simeon has on a savage animal pelt, and Levi, his back to us, sports an embroidered robe and eye-popping boots studded with pearls. In these paintings and the others, Zurbarán places the figures against landscapes whose horizon is slung low, so that the brothers appear to tower over the earth.
Judah, son No. 4 and the ancestor of Kings David and Solomon, faces front in a fur-trimmed gown, toting a scepter and standing beside a kindly lion. (“A lion’s whelp,” Jacob calls Judah in Genesis.) He appears far more august than the next six brothers, who are kitted out in an array of military, mercantile and peasant clothing.
Only Joseph, standing in stately semi-profile and holding a legal document that recalls his position as adviser to the Egyptian pharaoh, wears clothing of equal worth: a blue sash with a jewel-studded pin, a fur collar, a belt stitched with gold. To my eye, Judah and Joseph are easily the two most captivating of the 13 portraits here, but your opinion may vary. The painting of Naphtali, for instance, half-dressed in a rough brown cloak and toting a shovel over his shoulder, has an unpretentious beauty that recalls Jean-François Millet’s later ennoblements of French peasants.
These portraits of the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel are spryer and less mystical than Zurbarán’s more Caravaggesque — and more famous — tortured saints, like the ascetic, cloaked St. Francis kneeling in sepulchral darkness in the National Gallery of London. Yet just as much as in the darker pictures, a majority of these biblical portraits display an exactitude of characterization that belies the frisky, open brushwork Zurbarán favored. Their shallow, upright orientation also allowed him to condense the dozen men into streamlined form, without ever reducing his models to icons. This is the proto-modernity that would eventually enthrall Manet and the other Spain-smitten Frenchmen who forged Modern painting in the 1860s.
In the final painting, on loan from Grimsthorpe Castle in northern England, Benjamin, accompanied by a wolf on a leash, casts his gaze over his shoulder with a teenager’s swagger, his lips pursed, his elbow thrust jauntily to the right. (This work came to New York once before: for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1988 Zurbarán exhibition, the only such show ever in the United States.) Look at this confident, unbothered youngster, and then start again with his father, a trickster and a wrestler in his own youth, who wears the same reds and greens as his last child but is now bent toward the earth. These paintings may be prizes of religion and milestones in art history, but they are, no less, portraits of the human condition.