This painting of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau is notable both for its monumental scale and its skilled execution. Having been preserved in the same private collection for generations, it has only recently been made available to scholars to study, and while there is a consensus as to its high quality, its authorship has yet to be established with any certainty.
The artist has captured the climactic moment in the narrative of Jacob and Esau as recounted in Genesis 25:19-34, when Esau agrees to sell his birthright to his younger twin Jacob. Esau and Jacob were the sons of Isaac and Rebecca, and the grandsons of Abraham. When Rebecca was carrying the twins, the Lord revealed to her that she was carrying two nations within her womb, and that they would be separated, the older serving the younger: Esau was born first, with reddish skin and covered with hair; Jacob was born second, grasping his brother’s heel. Esau grew up to be a skilled hunter and was favoured by his father, while Jacob preferred to stay at home and was dearly loved by his mother. One day, Esau returned from hunting in the countryside to find his brother cooking some red lentil soup. Famished, he asked Jacob for some of the stew. The younger brother responded that he would sell it to him in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Exclaiming that his birthright was useless since he would die of hunger if he did not eat immediately, Esau swore an oath and thus abandoned his birthright to Jacob, who would become the third patriarch of the Jewish people.
The figure of Esau is instantly recognisable in this painting by his ruddy complexion, unstrung bow and richly adorned garments. He is accompanied by a greyhound, a sign of his wealth, which is painted with such personality that one can assume it is a portrait of a real dog. Holding his bowl of soup against his chest, Jacob takes his brother’s right hand while meeting his eye with a calculating expression. Compared to Esau’s stylish boots of green soft leather and gilded straps, Jacob’s sandals - apparently little more than soles secured to his feet with white and pink ribbons - underscore the younger brother’s domestic inclination. The silver tazza on the table, in addition to being a luxury object that would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary viewers who may have had similar vessels in their collections, may also be read as a symbol of the riches that Jacob will now inherit.
While less popular a subject in mid-seventeenth century painting than the story of Jacob deceiving his father to secure his blessing, Esau selling his birthright appears sporadically in Dutch art from this period. Notable examples include Rembrandt’s 1640-1641 drawing in the British Museum, London and Hendrick ter Brugghen’s painting of circa 1627 in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid. Although the present painting evokes associations with artists from the mid-seventeenth century Classicist school in Holland, particularly the treatment of the dog, which recalls the aristocratic greyhounds seen in works by Cesar van Everdingen (see for example, his 1655 Jupiter and Callisto in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), its accomplished draftsmanship, refined treatment of light and shadow, and confident yet unflamboyant treatment of the drapery, has not not yet been securely linked to any particular artist. Despite its superficial similarities to the work of Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Theodoor van Loon, Pieter de Grebber and Adam Camerarius, an attribution to these artists cannot be substantiated. The still life elements, such as the late Ming dynasty Chinese blue and white porcelain vase with Dutch or Middle Eastern silver mounts (late sixteenth/ early seventeenth century) on the table, the two Chinese porcelain storage jars and covers on the floor (also late Ming dynasty), and the laurel wreath adorning Esau’s hat, reveal the hand of an artist with a keen sense of observation and well-developed mimetic ability. The possibility that this work was painted by an artist of French or Germanic origin should also be considered.