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Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph, 1656

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In painting the biblical story of Jacob, Rembrandt chose to depict a sympathetic moment of reconciliation and acceptance, rather than a painful moment of conflict.

In a film, you can tell the whole story. You have two hours in which to portray it. The author of a book does this in a similar way. For a painting, however, the artist can choose only one moment to tell the whole story. Which moment do you choose? It is traditional to choose the decisive moment: the point at which fortune turns. It may be a miracle, a conversion, a liberation, a salvation, a judgement or a discovery. For the painting of Jacob blessing his grandsons, Rembrandt chooses the scene just after the moment of a conflict between father and son: a moment of reconciliation and acceptance.

The moment of reconciliation

The painting shows the biblical figure of Jacob on his deathbed blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, the children of his son Joseph. Joseph has brought his sons to his dying grandfather to receive his blessing and acceptance as his own sons. In the biblical story, the grandfather ignores the right of the first-born and lays his right hand on the head of the younger grandchild. He appears to do so deliberately, which leads to great confusion. Rembrandt, however, portrays it very differently to usual.

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Quarrel between father and son

Usually, this scene bears witness to a conflict between father and son. X-rays of the painting show that Rembrandt originally wanted to portray this conflict as well, but chose a different approach in the end. In Rembrandt’s story, Joseph realises that his father has deliberately placed his hands differently. The son is gently supporting his father’s hands with his fingertips. The blessing is a meaningful act that will eventually lead to peace. Rembrandt painted this work in the year he went bankrupt, at a time when he, too, sought peace of mind and acceptance of his fate.

  • Light-coloured clothing

    By painting light-coloured clothing in the parts of the painting that were lit up, Rembrandt heightened the effect.

  • Reconciliation

    From the whole biblical story, Rembrandt chooses the moment of acceptance and reconciliation between father and son.

Rembrandt wanted to find contentment and assurance in life. He sought inner peace and acceptance of his fate

Interest in the effects of light

In his late work, Rembrandt also did some other things that were unusual, for example in his use of colour, in which he developed a distinctive style. Like many other painters, Rembrandt had a special interest in strong lighting effects. But unlike the Italian light artist Caravaggio, Rembrandt heightened the effect by using shades that are light in themselves (such as cream) for passages that were lit directly, and darker colours (such as brown) for the passages in shadow. The painting of Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph (1656) is a good example of this. The off-white clothes of the elderly Jacob are practically the same colour as his grey beard, the fur on his shoulder and the turban of Joseph beside him. In this respect, too, Rembrandt was a groundbreaking artist.

Over het schilderij

  • Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph, 1656
  • Oil on canvas, 173 x 209 cm
  • Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel
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