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Le Brun's Jabach: Who's Got the Best?

Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman, Department of European Paintings

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Left: The Met's work. Right: The Berlin picture

Left: Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690). Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas; 110 1/4 x 129 1/8 in. (280 x 328 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, 2014 (2014.250). Right: Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690). Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family. Formerly Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin (destroyed in World War II)

«Well, if you live in New York and work at the Metropolitan Museum, there's really only one acceptable answer to that question! But what happens when two versions of a picture exist, as is the case with the Metropolitan's new painting by Charles Le Brun of the German banker Everhard Jabach (1618–1695)? I worried about this as we entered into negotiations for the purchase of the picture.»

Normally, the best way to resolve such a question is to examine both paintings and come to some conclusion about the superiority of one over the other. But there was a complication: in this case the other version, which belonged to the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin, was destroyed in World War II. Fortunately, the glass negative of a black-and-white photograph of it survived.

Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690). Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family. Formerly Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin (destroyed in World War II)

Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690). Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family. Formerly Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin (destroyed in World War II)

As in any pulp detective story, we began by assembling the known facts about each picture. Our findings are summarized in the work's catalogue entry, which you can find on the painting's object record. It turns out that one version—the one the Metropolitan has acquired—was painted for Jabach himself. It hung in his grand mansion in Paris and was moved to the family house in Cologne following his death. The other version was evidently intended for his brother-in-law and was sent back to his wife's family house, also in Cologne. Obviously, the one for Jabach must have come first and was the superior version, right? Not so fast.

There are differences between the two paintings, and if you compare the images of each, you'll see quite clearly that a different bust of Minerva—the ochre-colored piece of sculpture that presides over the other assorted objects in the stunning still life—is shown in each painting. The arrangement of the books is also different. And there are other, less immediately obvious differences that you can find for yourself.

Composite of the bust of Minerva and still lifes in both works

The bust of Minerva and arrangement of books at its base differ between the Met's painting (at left, before conservation) and the Berlin version (now destroyed).

So the two pictures were variants, not exact replicas, of each other. Very intriguing. But what about their respective quality? At this point in our investigation, I turned to my colleagues in Berlin in an effort to get a better image of the Berlin painting than was otherwise available. They kindly scanned the glass negative of the destroyed painting and sent the high-resolution image that you now see above.

Composite of Anne Marie in both paintings

Note how eleven-year-old Anna Maria's alert but poised attitude in the Met's painting (at left, before conservation) becomes somewhat bland in the destroyed version in Berlin.

If you make the same comparisons between the two works that I did, I think you'll agree that the quality of the Berlin painting is vastly inferior: the figures have a smooth, almost airbrushed quality and lack the expressive liveliness of those in the Metropolitan's version. No wonder that in the eighteenth century, the Metropolitan's painting became a principal sight in Cologne—it's noted in guidebooks to the city and was seen by the great poet-philosopher Goethe as well as by the British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. In contrast, the Berlin version was reputed to have been painted in part by the workshop.

But this is not the end of the story. As the cleaning of the Metropolitan's painting has proceeded, the relationship of the two pictures and the order in which they were painted has become more and more intriguing. But that's for another time.

See all posts related to the Jabach painting.


  • Lucy Oakley says:

    Many thanks for all the wonderful, sparkling, informative posts on this amazing acquisition. I can't wait to see it in person!

    Posted: August 13, 2014, 10:33 p.m.

  • Tom Furgas says:

    It is astonishing how the minute differences between the two paintings loom so large in the overall effect. Especially in the comparison between the two versions of Anna Maria. Mr. Christiansen zeroed in precisely on the difference in mood between the two versions. I kept looking back and forth and the more I looked the more I saw how bland the destroyed version was. This post about the paintings is a real "eye opener"!

    Posted: August 14, 2014, 11:00 a.m.

  • Ted Gallagher, Esq. says:

    Am I seeing things, or was the Berlin canvas also folded along the top?
    Was the destroyed canvas the same size as the New York specimen?

    Posted: August 14, 2014, 2:57 p.m.

  • Jonnie Pangyarihan says:

    Personally I think the destroyed Berlin version was superior. The more obvious contrasting shift between lights and dark makes the Berlin version more pictorially interesting, especially the sculpture bust turned more and in darkness.
    I think the crispness and assurance of the Berlin image makes it the first painting in the series. Typically copies get less and less defined.
    I am a practicing painter in NYC.

    Posted: August 15, 2014, 1:31 p.m.

  • Keith christiansen says:

    Ted Gallagher:

    What you see in the Berlin version is the join or seam betweem two pieces of canvas. The only way of creating a picture of this size was to join pieces of canvas. Both the Berlin and Metropolitan's pictures were created in the same way and the Metropolitan's canvas was folded along the top seam. Both share the same seam but the Berlin picture was not folded.


    Posted: August 15, 2014, 5:07 p.m.

  • Ted Gallagher, Esq. says:

    Great thanks, Mr. Christiansen, for the update on the 'seam.' I've always thought, if Brussels could create vast tapestries on looms, why couldn't artists procure vast canvases to avoid 'seaminess.'
    But what do I know? Amateurs!
    Rubens was impossible. He takes the cake in Vienna, with his "Flooded landscape (Jupiter and Mercury with Philemon and Baucis)", ca. 1626-1628, oil on panel, He only needed to find a spare piece of wood along the side of the road, and invariably it would find itself hammered to that poor painting. It started out as a cabinet piece and wound up as a roadside billboard. Well, almost.


    More seriously, I often think about the staggering 80 million people who died in World War II (my father spent 22 months in a German prisoner of war camp, having been a turret gunner shot down over Germany). And I also think about the equally vast loss of artistic heritage during the period.

    This is especially true when I read the ubiquitous “destroyed in World War II”; or “formerly Dessau Museum”; or “formerly Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin (destroyed in World War II)”; “formerly sacristy of S. Giovanni Evangelista, Brescia…sold to the National Gallery London, lost in a shipwreck crossing the English Channel”; or, most jarringly, “destroyed in Berlin’s Friedrichshain flak tower fire, May, 1945.”

    This latter event is the moment, at the very end of the German onslaught, that some of the greatest European works of art, once held by Berlin’s greatest museums, burned in a veritable cataclysm.

    Just to hear or say these artists' names, whose works were burned to cinders, makes one shiver with desolation:

    Lorenzo Monaco
    Domenico Ghirlandaio
    Luca Signorelli
    Fra Bartolomeo
    Caravaggio (four works)
    Cranach the Elder
    Veronese (several works)
    Rubens (several works)
    Rubens and Jan I Brueghel
    Van Dyck (several works)
    Caspar David Friedrich (many works)
    Jacopo del Sellaio
    Melozzo da Forli
    Alonso Cano

    Whenever I come to the Met I make a point of passing a poor orphan, or so I always think of it thus, since no one ever seems to stop long enough to admire it: “Island of the Dead,” 1880, by the Swiss master Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), MMA accession of 1926.

    The Met’s version is not my favorite, but it is seminal. Oil on wood; 29 x 48 in., it’s a beauty, but dark and awfully sorrowful. I have found Böcklin’s later “Island” version, of 1883 and in daytime (that is, daytime in the painting), when I recently visited Berlin (collection Alte Nationalgalerie). It has all the power of the Met’s but less of the inestimable grief.

    Do consider making friends with the Met’s Böcklin. It repays in majesty what it takes in sadness.
    As an aside, the Met’s Bocklin would look 1000% better if its impossibly thick layer of dust were removed.

    Posted: August 15, 2014, 5:42 p.m.

  • keith christiansen says:

    My thanks to Jonnie Pangyarihan for another, quite different, point of view concerning the two versions. I cannot agree, but I always admire independence of mind. I would only say that I believe some of what appeals to Ms.Pangyarihan is the result of a black and white photo that heightens the contrasts rather than a color image. In any case, neither of us can make the comparisons we would like, since the Berlin version no longer exists. However, there is no question which version Jabach preferred and which version was the more famous in the 18th century, when both actually could be and almost certainly were compared! The Berlin version was considered to be only in part by Le Brun. On this point I think I would trust one of the observers with greatest critical acumen for this kind of painting: Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose opinion of the Met's painting can be found on our website catalogue entry.

    Posted: August 18, 2014, 3:01 p.m.

  • Sheila Hale says:

    Would Ted Galligher tell me which Titian was destroyed in Germany during World War II?

    Posted: September 1, 2014, 9:32 a.m.

  • Ted Gallagher, Esq. says:

    In reply to Ms. Hale:

    For the Titian loss in World War II, I cite Christopher Norris’s “The Disaster at Flakturm Friedrichshain; A Chronicle and List of Paintings,” published in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 94, No. 597 (Dec., 1952), pp. 337-347.
    The Titian, along with scores of others, is illustrated.

    “No. 169. TITIAN, Tiziano Vecellio. Portrait of the Admiral Giovanni Moro. Canvas, 83 by 67cm. (Fig.2o, illus).”

    The portrait burned in the tower conflagration. But it hung originally in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin.

    Posted: September 2, 2014, 1:58 p.m.

  • Ted Gallagher, Esq. says:

    Further to my reply to Ms. Hale, if I may:

    I provide the coda to Christopher Norris’s chilling article, cited above:

    The heaviest losses in this holocaust have fallen upon the Italian School;
    nearly a quarter of the collection, or I58 paintings, having perished. These include many great altar-pieces, and great paintings from the foundation collections of the Gallery.
    There were burnt at least seventy-one of the Solly paintings, ten from the Giustiniani Collection - including the Reni, Vouet, and three Caravaggios; the great canvases from the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, with the Veronese ceiling and Moretto, from the Lecchi Collection; Signorelli's Pan, and the Rubens and Van Dycks presented by the Hohenzollern.
    Eighty-nine Dutch paintings, fifty-four Flemish paintings, the Reynolds portraits, the Zurbaran, the Chardin, and sixty-seven German paintings were also destroyed. It is to be hoped that further lists of the lost sculpture, metalwork, furniture, textiles, porcelain, and glass may with time be published.
    'I do not know', wrote Professor Kummel, 'if there is a moral in such experience. If mankind persists, as it would seem, in its decisions to commit suicide, then we need no museums. Should it take thought and become humane the museums will need no further protection. The Friedrichshain fires represent the greatest disaster to the figurative arts since the destruction of the Palace and Alcazar at Madrid in I734.'

    [Nota bene: the 1734 Madrid losses were purely accidental.]

    Posted: September 2, 2014, 2:17 p.m.

  • Gui Rochat says:

    Interesting to see how the Jabach portrait reflects the taste for Dutch art in seventeenth century France. The Jabach family is portrayed like Northern patricians which in a way they were and the enormous size of the portrait reflects the opulent taste of these bankers (like the Rothschilds in the nineteenth century: nec plus ultra). The symbolism of the displayed objects is clear: the sculpture of the tiger devouring its prey, the gilt bust of Minerva and the other objects like a compendium reflecting the banker’s wide-spread commercial and cultural interests, an Ozymandias proclaiming his power. The painter’s reflection remains with Jabach himself and his eldest son in comparative darkness with a concentration of light on his wife and other children and in particular the eldest daughter clad in costly brocade and appearing like an angel in clear light as almost a Vermeer-like figure. The large rectangular landscape painting in the background may well be a Poussin with its spidery-leafed tree. The painting is an interesting ricordo of a major commission for Le Brun and entirely alien to his classical works, even the brilliant Chancellor Seguier in the Louvre.

    Posted: October 10, 2014, 11:26 a.m.

  • Gui Rochat says:

    PS PS
    As a last remark, there can be no doubt that the Met picture is the first attempt by Le Brun. The Berlin portrait was more intricate and less spontaneous and no painter would go from more elaborate modeling to simpler forms, vide the prominent Minerva bust which curiously shows in the Berlin picture a crawling snake and is turned away from the viewer. Have Jabach’s fortunes waned by the time the Berlin portrait was painted ? Or was Le Brun by that time less fond of his patron and critical of his stipendium ? Art history is full of such interesting conundrums and an artist’s preferences and peculiarities.

    Posted: October 11, 2014, 11:11 a.m.

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About the Author

Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings, began work at the Met in 1977, and during that time he has organized numerous exhibitions ranging in subject from painting in fifteenth-century Siena, Andrea Mantegna, and the Renaissance portrait, to Giambattista Tiepolo, El Greco, Caravaggio, Ribera, and Nicolas Poussin. He has written widely on Italian painting and is the recipient of several awards. Keith has also taught at Columbia University and New York University's Institute of Fine Art. Raised in Seattle, Washington, and Concord, California, he attended the University of California campuses at Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, and received his PhD from Harvard University.

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