Two men, one old, one young, hands raised and fingers pointing, seem to be arguing. We are being presented with a key moment in a story, but since the picture has no surviving title we have to make an educated guess as to what it is.
The most likely candidate is the account in the Old Testament of Jacob’s marriage. Jacob fell in love with his cousin Rachel. To earn her hand in marriage he agreed to work as a shepherd for her father, Laban, for seven years. But when the time was up, Laban substituted his elder daughter Leah for Rachel. Jacob was bitterly disappointed by the deceit, but agreed to work for another seven years in order to marry Rachel as well. Here, then, we see Jacob’s admonishment of Laban the morning after the wedding, with Leah in blue and Rachel in the background.
Two men, one old, one young, hands raised and fingers pointing, seem either to be arguing, or discussing an important issue. They are balanced by two young women, one apparently serene and detached, the other peering around the doorway. As well as the central space between them, the two pairs are also separated by a strong dividing line – the young man’s long crook, which forms a dramatic diagonal across the canvas. The tension is palpable: clearly we are being presented with a key moment in a story, but since the picture has no surviving title we have to make an educated guess as to what it is.
It is likely to be a biblical scene, since these were the most popular type of narrative painting in Utrecht in the 1620s, and it probably comes from the Old Testament since Christ does not appear. But which story does it represent? There are very few contenders and the most likely is the story of Jacob’s marriage, which is told in Genesis. Although it is only rarely depicted, it is the best fit with what we see in this painting, and ter Brugghen painted another representation of this story (now in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne) the following year.
Jacob fell in love with his cousin Rachel and to earn her hand in marriage agreed to work as a shepherd for her father, Laban, for seven years. But, presumably under cover of the marriage veil, Laban substituted his elder daughter Leah for Rachel. When Jacob discovered the deceit the morning after the marriage, he was bitterly disappointed, as ‘Rachel was beautiful and well favoured’ (Genesis 29: 17). He reproached his new father-in-law, but Laban argued that the elder daughter must be married first. He compromised by offering to allow him to marry Rachel as well – in return for another seven years work. The determined Jacob agreed, and was eventually simultaneously married to both sisters and their handmaids, and had 12 children.
This story would explain the young man’s shepherd’s crook, and his apparent disagreement or discussion with an older man over a young woman. It could represent the initial moment when Jacob asks Laban for Rachel’s hand, in which case the woman in blue must be Rachel herself. But the dinner table suggests the remains of the wedding breakfast and so, combined with the young man’s pointed finger, we are more likely to be looking at Jacob’s admonishment of Laban the morning after the wedding. In this case, the woman in blue must be Leah, and the woman in the background is most likely Rachel.
Ter Brugghen studied and painted in Rome for ten years and was heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s techniques for creating powerful pictorial dramas and his skill at depicting highly realistic detail. Here Caravaggio’s influence can be detected in the way ter Brugghen has used the remains of the meal on the table, and the silver, glass and pewter to demonstrate his skill as a still life painter.
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