May 23, 2009

Thirteen Looted Zurbaráns

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) was one of a handful of masterful Spanish painters to take inspiration from the revolutionary style of shadows and light and realism invented by Caravaggio. Along with Ribera, Murillo, and later Velazquez, Zurburan is part of an elite group of ingenious Spanish Baroque painters who form the core of what became known as the Golden Age of Spanish Art. Zurbarán combines the drama of the Baroque, in terms of dynamic moments and theatrical painted lighting, with realism and the Catholic mysticism that has always been a part of Spanish artistry. His themes were almost all religious, and he received particular acclaim for a number of highly-realistic depictions of monks emerging from shadows.

Zurbarán was born to a Basque family in Fuente de Cantos, in the Badajoz Province of Spain. He studied painting in Seville, and worked first in Llerena, before settling back into Seville in 1629, where aside from two years of his life (1634-1635), when he painted at the royal court in Madrid, he would live and work until 1658. His popularity as a painter starting to wane, Zurbarán left Seville for Madrid, where he lived out the last decade of his life.

Zurbarán’s earlier works show the influence of Caravaggio, and the Tenebrist post-Caravaggio style taken up and made new by Ribera and Velazquez. Zurbarán’s work developed more along the lines of his fellow Sevillan and contemporary, Murillo (see entry number nine in this museum), who was wildly popular. Many critics agree that the move away from the Caravagesque and more toward the occasionally-cloying sweetness of Murillo was a shift for the worse, choosing popular sentimentality over high drama and action.

Zurbarán’s work has been the subject of high-seas adventure. In 1756 an English ship seized cargo from a Spanish vessel, that was carrying the thirteen paintings by Zurbarán, a complete series depicting the Old Testament Jacob and his twelve sons, painted 1640-1645. The captured paintings were offered for sale in England. Richard Trevor, the Bishop of Durham (1707-1771), bought twelve of the thirteen paintings for £124. But the Bishop was foiled in his attempt to buy the complete series, as the portrait of Benjamin, Son of Jacob was snapped up by Peregrine Bertie, Duke of Ancaster (1714-1778) before the Bishop made his bid. The Bishop of Durham commissioned the artist Arthur Pond to paint a copy of the Zurbarán Benjamin (seen in the image above), as the Duke of Ancaster refused to sell, quite pleased with his purchase, albeit of captured art.

In 2001 the Church Commissioners planned to sell the series of twelve paintings, today worth an estimated £20 million (a nice profit from £124). As there was a public uproar, they determined to keep the works and re-evaluate their own financial straits in 2010. But do they own the works, after all? If the paintings were seized from a Spanish vessel, rather than having been legally purchased, and then sold on, who has the current rightful title? The original Spanish owners? The Spanish government? Or did all this happen so long ago, that the current English owners should retain the rights?