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The two last chapters of the Book of Genesis are dedicated to the life stories of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob was a shepherd and a quiet, peaceful man. Scenes of Jacob’s life were therefore a welcome theme for bucolic landscapes and pictures of shepherds and sheep. As a continuation of these themes, artists sometimes turned to Joseph to paint in the seventeenth century pictures of animals and landscapes. Jacob’s themes were combined with love scenes for Jacob had many wives.

Esau had threatened to kill his brother Jacob once Isaac dead, for Jacob had deceived their father in receiving the blessing of heritage. Esau had lost his birthright to Jacob. Rebekah had overheard Esau calling out the threat. Always the sly, she told her husband Isaac to send her favourite son Jacob to her brother Laban. She told Isaac that Jacob should not marry Hittite women like Esau had done, but that Jacob was to marry one of their own kin. Isaac summoned Jacob and told him, “You are not to marry one of the Canaanite women. Go off to Paldan-Aram, the home of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and there choose a wife from the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.” Jacob did so and left Beersheba for Haran G38 .

In the meantime, Esau realised how much his father disapproved of his Hittite wives. He chose in addition to the wives he had also Mahalath, daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael.

Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder to Heaven

Domenico Fetti (1588/1589-1623). Kunsthistorisches Museum – Vienna. Around 1618-1620.

Jacob left Beersheba and travelled to Haran. He stopped for the night, lay down and used a stone under his head as pillow. He had a dream. He saw a ladder planted on the ground that reached heaven with its top. The angels of God were going up and down on the ladder. Then, suddenly, Yahweh stood at his side and said that God would give the ground on which Jacob was sleeping to Jacob and his descendants. Yahweh promised to keep Jacob safe wherever he went and to bring him back to this country. Jacob awoke from the sleep and was afraid. He thought how awe-inspiring the place was, nothing less than the abode of God and the gate to heaven. Jacob took the stone he had laid on, put it on a pillar, poured oil on top of it and called the place Bethel. He made a vow. He said that if Yahweh indeed would keep him safe on his journey back to his father, Yahweh would be his God. Jacob would faithfully pay to God one-tenth part of everything he received and the stone on the pillar would be a house of God G38 . Once again Canaan had been given as the Promised Land to Jacob’s descendants and a covenant signed.

Images of Jacob’s dream and the theme of the ladder going to heaven is a very old theme as represented in paintings. Images of Jacob’s ladder can be found in the Roman Catacombs. John, a monk of Palestine also took up the image, in the second half of the seventh century. John became a hermit at Thole in Egypt and he wrote there a treatise on monastic spirituality and on the rules of eremitic life. John loaded the state of passive disinterestedness of the world as all the hermits sought E5 . This treatise was very influential in determining the life of hermits and abbeys. It was called ‘The ladder to Paradise’. Ladder is in Latin the word ‘Climacus’, so this John is now known as Saint John Climacus. Later, at an old age, he became the abbot of the Mount Sinai abbey but at eighty he retired again as a hermit. The image of a ladder to heaven as a representation of spiritual life inspired many painters.

Domenico Fetti made a picture of Jacob’s dream in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Jacob lies down on the ground in this picture, on the stones as in the story of the Bible. He keeps his head as in thoughts and the dream starts there. A stairway goes to heaven and angels ascend the steps. Fetti was a Baroque painter and some of the elements of this style can be found in his picture. Jacob lies from left to right in an oblique position. From his head then grows the dream, going from right to left, also in a slanting way. Using such slanting directions was one of the main style elements of Baroque, which preferred oblique lines to the vertical or horizontal compositions of previous periods. Fetti also painted a night scene, which allowed him to marvellously play with the scant light on Jacob’s body and in the part of the angels ascending the stairs. Remark the shades on Jacob and Fetti’s great skill in depicting the light on Jacob. Fetti also used beautiful hues in the light as contrasting with the darker tones of the night. This is how we can imagine ourselves having dreams, as a scene coming out of opening clouds in the sky. The angels then ascend in heavenly, eery light, as in a strange fear-inspiring vision, towards a transcendental image of spirituality. Fetti had a way of showing his figures in peasant’s clothes so that his pictures are not unlike the genre scenes of certain other Italian painters and the Dutch pictures of the seventeenth century. But Fetti had no intention to develop this in a particular style. He simply painted figures from the Old and New Testament as he knew them from his own Italian countryside and as he imagined the figures from the Bible to have been.

Domenico Fetti was born in Rome and may have been a pupil of Cigoli. He became the court painter of Mantua in 1613 and realised monumental frescoes there for the ducal palace and the cathedral. He left Mantua rather soon, in 1622, and settled in Venice where he had been before to buy art for his patron the Duke of Mantua. Domenico Fetti particularly enlivened the art of painting parables so that no other artist like him treated these themes. His picture ‘Jacob’s Dream’ is also a kind of parable, a symbol of an idea, of the idea of the spiritual life that will lead the devote to heavenly compensation. Fetti died in 1623, still a young man in his thirties so that his career was short and few paintings remain of his hand.

Jacob at Laban’s home

Jacob arrived at Laban’s home and Genesis recalls a story of shepherds all having to wait until enough of them were there to roll away a heavy stone from a well to give to drink to their sheep. Jacob helped them with the stone and met Laban. When Jacob had stayed for a month with Laban, his uncle asked him what he wanted for pay. Jacob replied he had seen Laban’s youngest daughter and wanted to marry her. Laban had two daughters. The elder was named Leah and she had lovely eyes. But the younger, called Rachel, was shapely and beautiful. Jacob had fallen in love with Rachel. Laban asked Jacob to work for him for seven years and then Jacob could marry Rachel G38 .

Jacob worked for seven years for Laban and these years seemed for him like a few days because he loved Rachel so much. When the time was up, Jacob asked for his wife. Laban gathered all his people and held a banquet. But when night came he brought his elder daughter Leah to Jacob and Jacob slept with her. When morning came Jacob found out he had been tricked. He confronted Laban, but Laban told it was not his custom to marry first a younger daughter. But Laban also promised that if Jacob finished the marriage week with Leah, he would also give him the youngest daughter in return for another seven years of work. Jacob agreed and when the week was finished, Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife. Jacob slept with Rachel and he loved her more than Leah.

When Yahweh saw that Leah remained unloved, he opened her womb whereas Rachel remained barren. Leah gave birth to Reuben, to Simeon, to Levi and to Judah. Rachel, seeing that she herself gave no children to Jacob, became jealous of her sister. She presented her slave-girl Bilhah as a concubine to Jacob and told him to sleep with her so that she, Rachel, would have children too. Billalh soon gave birth first to Dan and then to Naphtali. Leah, seeing that she had ceased to bear children, took her own slave-girl Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a concubine. Zilpah conceived of Gad and of Asher. One day Reuben found mandrakes in a field and Rachel asked for these to Leah. But Leah said, “is it not enough to have taken my husband, do you want to take also my son’s mandrakes?” So Rachel said, “ Well, all right. Let Jacob sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes”. Leah went to Jacob and told him she had hired him at the price of her son’s mandrakes. Yahweh heard Leah and she conceived and gave birth to her fifth son, Issachar. Later she gave birth to Zebumun as well as to a daughter named Dinah. Only then did God remember Rachel. She too finally conceived and gave birth to a son, which she named Joseph G38 .

After the birth of Joseph, Jacob asked Laban to leave to return to Canaan. Laban wanted to pay Jacob. Jacob only asked for the black sheep and the speckled or spotted goats. Laban promised so, but before Jacob could choose he hid all his black sheep and speckled goats, entrusted them to his sons and put three days of journey between him and the rest of the flock that Jacob tended. Jacob got fresh shoots from poplar, almond and plane trees and peeled them in white strips. He put the shoots near the pond where the goats came to drink. The goats mated there in front of the shoots and produced striped, spotted and speckled young. Jacob kept apart the ewes and made them face whatever was striped or black in Laban’s flock. Thus he built up droves of his own. Thus Jacob grew wealthy of his own flock.

But Laban’s sons conspired against Jacob. They were saying that Jacob had taken what belonged to their father. Yahweh spoke to Jacob and told him to flee to Canaan, to the land of his ancestors. Forthwith, Jacob took his children and his wives and put them on camels. He took all his possessions and his flock and left while Laban was away, sheering his sheep. Rachel in the meantime had appropriated the household idols belonging to her father, but Jacob did not know of this. Thus, Jacob outwitted Laban the Aramaean so that he would not be forewarned of his flight G38 .

After three days Laban heard that Jacob had fled and that his idols were gone. He pursued Jacob, caught up with him and searched his tents. But Rachel had hidden the idols inside a camel cushion. She was sitting on the cushion and asked her father to forgive her for not rising in his presence because he was as women are from time to time. Laban searched everywhere but found nothing. Finally, Laban and Jacob made a treaty. Jacob had to promise to care well for Rachel and Leah and he and Laban delineated their lands with a stone cairn.

Landscape with Jacob, Rachel and Leah

Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683). Musée du Louvre – Paris. Around 1633.

The Genesis story of Jacob contains several episodes of domestic animals, of sheep and goats. Paintings of groups of animals driven in a wide landscape are a genre that artists of the Netherlands but also of Italy and more rarely of France exercised. We offer two examples of these. There was especially a tradition in Rome of pastoral scenes with animals in the seventeenth century. A name to be mentioned is the Genovese painter Benedetto Castiglione, who also worked in Rome. Several Dutch artists, who knew a tradition of landscape painting that went even earlier in history, to Flanders and Antwerp, came to Rome. They either stayed there for many years to introduce their new fashion genres, or they stayed only for a short while but were captivated by the Italian styles and by Italy’s romantic landscapes. Lucas de Wael (1591-1661) and Willem van Nieulandt (1584-1635) had been in Rome. Cornelis Poelenburgh (1590-1667) and Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1600-1657) also were in Rome around 1620. Pieter van Laer (1599-1642) arrived in Rome somewhat later, around 1642, but he had a surprising success. This van Laer established a genre of pictures called Bamboccio. He made scenes of landscapes and interiors with gypsies and shepherds, land thieves and beggars, soldiers fighting off bandits on the roads. He made pictures of animals. These picturesque themes were the delight of the Romans of the seventeenth century, eagerly sought and copied by Italian painters themselves. Jan Miel (1599-1663), another artist of the Netherlands working in Rome painted this way and had much success too. These artists had been preceded however in landscape and genre paintings.

Maybe the whole tradition goes back to Pieter Bruegel from Brabant. Bruegel had pupils called Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) and Gillis van Coninxloo (1544-1617) who worked in Antwerp and who were skilled landscape painters. One of the students of Gillis van Coninxloo was Herkules Seghers (1589-1639) and this artist inspired painters from Haarlem. Dutch landscape painting henceforth was a powerful trend in northern art and it was mostly born in Haarlem. Pieter van Laer and Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683) came from Haarlem.

Nicolaes Berchem had learned to paint with various masters of Haarlem, among whom maybe the most famous now was Claes Moeyaert. Berchem was inscribed in the Painters’ Guild of Haarlem in 1642 and that same year he also travelled to Italy, to Rome. He came back to Holland with a sketchbook of Italian landscapes and with a mind forever lost to the Roman arcadian countryside. He first stayed on in Haarlem, and then quite later in 1677 settled in Amsterdam. He was an example for many of the artists of his native Netherlands.

Nicolaes Berchem’s ‘Landscape with Jacob, Rachel and Leah’ was painted around 1643, so right after his stay in Rome. Berchem painted a landscape of one of the marvellous Italian rivers, hidden in a romantic mountainous area. Ancient ruins and the towers of villages can be seen on promontories on the valley side. These try to dominate by their signs of human presence the lovely, quiet river. But high slopes and mountains majestically yet softened reach into the clouds. This must be evening for the feeble yellowish light of the low sun colours the sky.

The lines of the mountains come down to Leah. She is sitting in bright colours on a donkey and seems to drive her servants forward to cross the river. If this is indeed evening, she will want to be in the village and over the river before nightfall. Maybe a part of Jacob’s companions have already traversed the ford. Or another group of travellers has discovered the place on the river where the water is shallow, conveniently close to a village. Leah points forward to the rest of her group. They are arriving behind her. She points forward. She talks to a servant or to a guide who has shown her the ford. This character and also Leah, comes straight out of a Bamboccio picture. He wears a large hat worn in the Italian countryside. Leah also is dressed in the bright, wide robes of Italian country girls. But she directs energetically her servants.

A bit further to the right and down a woman and man rest and sit behind a boulder. They are relaxed, seem to be flirting like a shepherdess and her young admirer. These must be Rachel and Jacob. Rachel is facing the viewer. Jacob has his back to the viewer even though he should be the main figure of the scene. It was a characteristic of Bamboccio pictures to have to search for details and apparently Nicolaes Berchem could not resist that temptation. The less shapely Leah is doing all the work and driving the group forward while Rachel and Jacob are in love. But what will come from love alone? A black and white speckled goat has returned from the ford and peers above the boulder. Goats were always a symbol of lechery. And this one refers cleverly to the other story of the spotted goats that Jacob could take on his way from Laban. Nicolaes Berchem remembered his Bible stories well.

Berchem made not only a beautifully composed landscape but also a scene of animals watering through a river and a young bucolic flirting scene. Berchem combined themes in the splendid Italian landscape. And the powerful Leah hovers above it all. She commands the scene like a sorceress. That is why Berchem lets the mountains bring our view to her and also why here are the brightest spots of colour.

Nicolaes Berchem was a very active painter. He had many students who perpetuated his style. His importance in Dutch seventeenth century art can not be neglected. His pupils were Karel Dujardin, also a gifted artist of animals and landscapes, Dirk Maes and Dirk van Bergen. We also mention the landscape and animal painters that worked in Berchem’s lifetime. These were painters of Holland or of Antwerp. There was Salomon Ruisdael (1600-1670), Aelbrecht Cuyp (1620-1691), Jan-Baptist Weenix (1621-1660), Jan Asselijn (1610-1652), Paulus Potter (1625-1654) and Jan Both (1615-1632). Of a somewhat later generation were Jacob Ruisdael (1628-1682) and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709). Jacob van Ruisdael was the best known artist among these. His master had been Cornelis Vroom who came from the Haarlem of Nicolaes Berchem. The tradition of northern landscape painting had come to its greatest splendour and sophistication with these artists.

Jacob buries the Idols of Laban

Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671). The State Hermitage Museum– Saint Petersburg.

With the painting of Sébastien Bourdon ‘Jacob buries Laban’s Idols’ we continue our series of paintings of the seventeenth century. And we continue to look at pictures of groups of animals, in the line of pictures of Nicolaes Berchem.

Sébastien Bourdon was however quite another artist than Berchem. Bourdon stayed in Rome too, from 1634 to 1639 and he, like Pieter van Laer, was sufficiently successful there not to return soon to France. Bourdon was still very young during this period. He was only from eighteen to twenty-three years old. He was much influenced by the style of the Bamboccianti and probably also by Benedetto Castiglione. Bourdon was easily influenced by a style that was easy to imitate and that appealed to young playful minds. Castiglione painted many scenes of groups of animals, drawn from themes of the Bible and thus also of Jacob’s narratives.

Sébastien Bourdon was French, born in Montpellier from a Protestant family. He was to become a many sided artist and he touched several styles. He painted Bamboccio scenes, mythological scenes as a classical artist, Bible scenes and scenes of the life of Jesus from the New Testament. He painted historical pictures and in his later years (he died in 1671 in Paris, twelve years earlier than Nicolaes Berchem) he also took to landscapes. Bourdon painted much. He had a good gift of composition, a universal mind and he preferred to make his pictures in broad colour surfaces without always detailing to the finest degree his figures and scenes. Yet, he could be a very dedicated and slow painter too. He showed magnificent finished detail in jewels of portraits.

In the picture we show, an already elderly Jacob is setting up the altar of which is spoken in the Bible. We see no idols and the burying of the idols of Laban is an earlier story, but Bourdon needed to situate in time an otherwise common scene of an offering as close to the story of Laban’s idols. Jacob has come with all his family, his wives and his slave-girls. He is still on the move as can be seen in the white horse laden with heavy packs and house utensils such as the copper cooking pots. Jacob has brought mainly sheep, but also an ox and camels are in the scene. Bourdon however forgot that the Bible does not speak of horses and that Jacob’s sheep had to be mostly black.

Bourdon was a master in composition. Jacob burns hastily gathered wood, on an improvised altar on a stone near a well. The well is maybe a reference to Rebekah’s meeting with Eleazar. The servants of Jacob are helping him. A tree grows high to the left out of this scene. On the right is another scene of figures, almost symmetrically composed. Here are Rachel and Leah with their small children and babies. Old and new thus confront each other. Over Rachel and Leah grows sideways a heavily foliaged tree. This tree is associated with Rachel and Leah. The tree above Jacob also grows obliquely but to the other side and it is merely a dead trunk. This is one more indication of the contrast between young and old. The smoke of Jacob’s burning offer rises in the open ‘V’ between the two trees, upwards to God but against a background of blue menacing rocks.

ébastien Bourdon also used a diagonal in his composition, the same one as Nicolaes Berchem. Our eyes indeed start on the lower left where the naked flesh of a slave-girl and her baby son attracts a male view. Then the view can rise over Jacob to a prancing camel. The line continues over to Rachel and then goes towards the upper right and the imposing autumn foliage of the tree.

The group of animals steals the show of this picture and even here we see the skills in composition of the young Bourdon. The sheep, horse, ox and camels beneath form a horizontal band that brings solidity and firm foundation in an otherwise nervous scene of movement. Remark how Sébastien Bourdon cleverly adjusted the positions of the animals to the triangle he had under the diagonal. The sheep on the left are mostly lying; the leftmost sheep even keeps its head to the ground. Where there was more space, to the right, the sheep are standing. Then Bourdon added the white horse, the standing ox and the even higher camels to fill the rightmost scene. For a very young painter, just in his twenties, such a masterly composition denotes a future great master. Moreover the whole scene is in soft diluted pastel colours, almost of a water colouring. And yet. A few surfaces of harder colours, deep red on Jacob’s servant and the dark blue robe of the seated slave-girl on the left try to keep the attention of the viewer to this more open, less crowded left scene. This part of the picture might otherwise have remained less noticed than the beautiful disordered happy youthful play around Rachel and Leah. We also better understand now why Bourdon brought the nudity of the slave-girl in this corner.

Sébastien Bourdon made a fine picture, strongly composed and painted in harmonious soft colours. Such pictures are a joy for the eye. We saw that Bourdon did not look closely at the Bible story but he was still young and the obvious enthusiasm of the youthful joy in this picture make us forgive him. Jacob looks like an ancient patriarch. The scene is almost a theme of classical antiquity. The static Jacob contrasts with the Baroque scene of movement on the right. Sébastien Bourdon combined various styles cleverly. He would indeed later paint as well pure classicist scenes as pictures of pure Baroque. We feel something of the austere search for purity in this scene, the discipline of mind that is spirituality.

Jacob’s fight with God

Jacob continued his journey to Edom, the land of Esau. He sent messengers in front to win the favour of his brother. But he heard from them that Esau was already on his way to meet him, with four hundred men. He sent many goats and sheep as a gift to Esau then, split his camp in two and waited greatly afraid and distressed G38 .

A night, Jacob got up and took his two wives, their two female servants and his eleven sons and took them across the stream at the ford of Jabbok. Jacob stayed alone. Then someone wrestled with him until daybreak. Seeing that he could not master Jacob, the other struck him on the hip so that Jacob’s hip was dislocated. But Jacob still wrestled on. Then the other said,” Let me go for the day is breaking”. But Jacob replied that he would not let go unless he received his blessing. The other said, “What is your name?” “Jacob”, he replied. “No longer are you to be called Jacob”, the other said, “but Israel since you have shown your strength against God and men and have prevailed.” Then God blessed Jacob and left. To this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh sinew which is at the hip socket, because God had struck Jacob there G38 .

When Esau met Jacob, he was not angry at all. He did not need Jacob’s gifts for he had plenty. Esau ran to meet his brother and took him in his arms. Jacob and Esau parted a little while after. Esau returned to Seir in Edom. Jacob settled in front of the city of Shechem and bought a piece of land of Hamor, father of Shechem. He erected an altar there, which he called ‘El, God of Israel’.

The Fight of Jacob and the Angel

Paul Baudry (1828-1886). Musée Municipal. La Roche-sur-Yon.

Paul Baudry was born in France, in a small town called La Roche-sur-Yon. He received money from his town to go to Paris in 1844, merely sixteen years old, to study at the French Academy of fine Arts in the capital. He had much talent and immediately tried to win the ‘Prix de Rome’ to be allowed on a state stipend to continue his studies at the Villa Medici, the seat of the French Academy in Rome. He tried several times, and succeeded to win the prize in 1850. He could stay in Rome for five years, be lodged and fed at the former Medici palace. He travelled to Venice in 1852. Baudry studied and liked many styles, not just the Raphaelism lauded by the academy, but also Michelangelo and the classicist painters of Italy. When he returned to Paris he had no great success, but anyhow painted monumental frescoes in the Parisian Opera house. He returned to Italy also, and copied for instance there Michelangelo’s frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. His project for the pantheon of Paris remained at the stage of project when he died in 1886. Baudry first offered the ‘Fight of Jacob and the Angel’ to the Museum of Fine Arts of the town of Nantes. When this museum refused to pay for it, he gave the painting to the town where he was born.

Paul Baudry’s ‘Fight between Jacob and the Angel’ is an eminently Neo-Classicist work with Baroque undertones. We see Jacob wrestling with an angel. Jacob wrestled with God, but as throughout the Bible angels are manifestations of God on earth, Baudry’s interpretation is plausible. In the early pages of the Bible, angels are not creatures that were separate from God, but truly God’s actions made visible to man.

Baudry emphasised the two aspects of the battle between Jacob and the angel. Jacob is the human, powerful, magnificent human in his physical nudity. The angel represents spirituality, the idea. Jacob is nude, very sensual and present. The angel is clad with a flowing, white toga or robe, always a sign of the intellectual or refined noble. Jacob contorts his strong back and he pulls on all muscles. The angle curves more under the tension; he is more flexible still and seems to withstand terrible force by leaning and curving around the stress. Jacob holds the angel but the angel’s body yields where the arms hold it. The angel is finer, more elegant than the man. The angel has the face of a woman but also the strong, thick, male arms of a prize fighter. He or she pushes Jacob’s chest away but Jacob also does not yield, does not loosen his grip so that the angel cannot but curve its body through Jacob’s arms. With the powerful arms the angel will later in the fight strike Jacob’s hip. Baudry particularly curved Jacob’s back at the hip, where later the angel would strike Jacob and hurt him. Baudry showed the muscles and sinews of Jacob’s back, his thighs, legs and arms. He painted the man Jacob like a strong, still youthful man that likes to fight and likes to win. Although the angel pushes at Jacob’s breast and neck so that Jacob’s head also is forced backwards, Jacob stands forcefully and does not yield. Jacob’s hair is loose; the angel’s hair is dressed up like a woman’s. Baudry definitely showed the fight not only between Jacob and the angel, but between masculinity and femininity. He may have also wanted to express in a hidden way the perpetual antagonism between male and female.

The painting of Paul Baudry is a picture of a fight, a scene of immediacy and of movement. Yet, it shows strong structure. He used the directions of the two diagonals. Jacob’s body is along the right diagonal of the frame; the angel’s body is along the left diagonal. Therefore the picture has the stability, balance and rigidity of a true Classicist painting. The scene of the battle was in the night, so Baudry showed a low, dark landscape and only the beginning of dawn. We must admire of course the skill with which this artist sculpted the volumes of the body of Jacob and of the angel in the dim light. Baudry mastered fully his rendering of shadows on the bodies so that the picture is a marvel of force. Baudry also painted all in golden-yellow hues to accentuate the bronze flesh colours of the vigorous bodies.

Baudry showed that he was a great painter. His Jacob and Angel is a fine show of force. Michelangelo could sculpt naked bodies with power, Baudry could paint bodies this way. His picture is a study of the human male nude. He used a theme of the Bible to present a study but succeeded well in making an impressive picture.

The Birth of Benjamin

Shechem son of Hamor raped Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. Hamor visited Jacob and asked Dinah’s hand for his son. Jacob’s sons gave a crafty answer to Hamor and told that only when the people of Shechem were circumcised could they as them and intermarry. Hamor was so in love with the girl that he agreed. Hamor and Shechem talked to the townspeople. They pleaded that the newcomers were friendly and that there was livestock to share and to become a single nation if only the males of the town circumcised. The citizens of the town agreed to the proposal and all the males were circumcised. But Simeon and Levi took their swords three days later and killed Hamor and Shechem. They advanced unopposed against the town and slaughtered all the males. Then their brothers, Jacob’s sons, treacherously pillaged the town in reprisal for the dishonouring of their sister. Jacob feared reprisals then G38 .

Jacob departed again. Yahweh ordered Jacob to travel to Luz, which is Bethel, in Canaan and to dress an altar there for him. Jacob named the place El-Bethel since it was there that Yahweh had appeared to him while he was fleeing from his brother. Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse died there. God then appeared again to Jacob, blessed him and said that from now on he would not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel. God said that he was El-Shaddai and that from Jacob’s loins would come kings and an assembly of nations. Jacob raised a monument where God had spoken to him and he called the place Bethel.

Jacob left Bethel with his family and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel gave birth to a second son. The midwife told her not to worry and announced her she had again a son, but Rachel breathed her last. Rachel died in the effort of giving birth and she breathed her last. Rachel called her son Ben-Omi, but Jacob named him Benjamin. Jacob raised a monument to Rachel. Jacob had now twelve sons.

The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel

Jacques Pilliard (1811-1898). Musée de Grenoble. 1841.

Jacques Pilliard was born not so far from the town of Lyon in France. He studied and worked in Lyon at first, without going to the Paris Academy. When he was about thirty years old, in 1840, he left for Rome and stayed there until his death. He was primarily a painter of Biblical scenes, of martyrdoms of saints, of Christian themes overall. Pilliard worked in Rome but he sent also his paintings to France, to the Salons, the official exhibitions organised in Paris and he also exhibited in other towns of France, re-enacting the lives of the great French Baroque painters that worked from out of Rome like Nicolas Poussin. Jacques Pilliard’s picture of the ‘Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel’ is one of his first pictures made in Rome and sent to France. Pilliard was thirty years old.

Jacques Pilliard showed Rachel lying on her bed, just after having given life to Benjamin. She died in the effort and lies now already pale, cold and white in body and face. God has given her a child but he has taken her life. The midwife holds the newborn baby in her lap. She sits at the end of Rachel’s bed. A slave-girl of Jacob’s household helps to cover the baby. On the right and in the complete dark sits Jacob, hooded in mourning and in grief. On the other side, equally hooded in mourning, stands Rachel’s sister Leah. She also is in the dark but her face is quit visible, as the light in the painting comes from the lower right.

Pilliard used an ‘Open V’ structure in his composition. One side of the V, the right side, is formed by Jacob and the structures higher up on that side. The midwife and Leah form the other side of the V. In the opening of this composition we see the bed and the corpse of Rachel. Pilliard filled the space behind Rachel sparingly with a vase and a long, straight lamp-stand. This lamp-holder indicates the main direction of the painting. We would have found such indications also in pictures of Jacques-Louis David. Leah, the midwife, Jacob, and the servants, sit or stand upright and this feature gives an impression of austerity, solemnity and rigidity in the painting, which is typical for many Neo-Classicist pictures. Nevertheless, Pilliard knew he had to ease, to relax this rigidity. So he gave his figures lively poises. From right to left, Jacob inclines his head and holds one of his children in an embrace; the midwife opens her arms and one arm is in an oblique position; she holds her head also somewhat slanting, in an imploring expression and she takes God witness to the sorrow; a servant or daughter holds her hands in prayer but curves her back in doing so, while looking at Sarah. An attention point further away from these structures, is the prayer shawl that lies on the ground, futile and useless since God has taken Sarah despite the praying.

Pilliard was a very professional painter. He knew the form of art that was painting well and had received good scholarship with other painters in the school of Lyon. So he had learned the power of the use of light to draw attention on the central scene of Sarah’s death and her midwife with the child. These figures are in full light and shows, almost like in a traditional Pietà view. Pilliard placed the mourning Jacob and Leah in the shadows of the sides. He also used symmetries of colour in these two personages: Jacob and Leah wear a deep brick-red robe and these areas are on both extremes of the frame. He gave them also dark hoods and cloaks, painted in the same tones. Pilliard also placed a pyramid structure in the painting. This is the area made by the midwife and the two servants. One servant is placed on either side of the midwife; they form the sides of the pyramid. Pilliard placed this scene somewhat to the left and balanced then this area with the horizontal figure of Sarah on the bed. Finally, as in many Neo-Classicist pictures, Pilliard kept the background very frugal, undecorated and so discreet as to be mostly remaining unobserved by most viewers. He showed here the neutral, dark green of the curtains that separate Sarah’s space in Jacob’s tent. We must admire the draughtsmanship of Jacques Pilliard. He painted nicely and correctly the play of light and shadows on faces, robes, cloaks.

Jacques Pilliard’s ‘Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel’ is thus almost a textbook example of the accomplished, academic painting. It handles a tragic scene of the bible and it evokes sympathy and even grief in viewers that see the beautiful but lifeless, pale Sarah on the bed and the gestures of sadness and powerlessness of the midwife. Pilliard brings these feelings over to the viewer with delicate means and not of overt sensibility. Furthermore, he painted his picture in soft tones of a global, restrained mood. Pilliard well created a mood of grief in using subdued hues, creating the mood of brown, sombre silence in the death room. He played well with contrasts of light and shadows. Yet, of course, in view of so much professionalism, we miss something when we experience his painting. We miss the surprise of a genius picture. We miss the warmth and the capacity of the painter to inspire truly instantaneous empathy with the figures. The viewer now has an impression of pure contemplation of a scene to which he or she remains just that, a viewer and not a participant.

Pilliard was a very good painter but he lacked the sparkle of originality and genius to bridge the distance between scene and viewer, so that the coldness that is often the problem with Neo-Classical scenes remains a dominant impression. That is not a problem and even and advantage for scenes of epic heroism, but less indicated for a theme of grief. The lack of empathy of the viewer is nothing more than also the painter’s lack of empathy, which we can somewhat feel also in the way Pilliard showed Sarah. Sarah is death but he shows her breast, and lies like an oriental beauty, whereas he could have covered her and shown her more in the drama of her powerless death.

Jacob in Canaan

The sons of Jacob were now twelve. Jacob reached Mamre where Isaac lived. His father was one hundred and eighty years old when he died. His sons Jacob and Esau buried him. Esau left far from Canaan and from his brother Jacob and went to live with his three wives and five sons in Seir. Esau settled in the mountainous region of Seir and was called Edom. Esau’s descendants reigned as kings in Edom before an Israelite king.

But Jacob settled in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan G38 .

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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