In the book of Genesis (25:29-34) we learn about the twin brothers of Isaac and Rebecca. Esau was the first-born followed by Jacob. In those ancient times, the birthright belonged to the first born child and thus the birthright belonged to Esau as well as his right to have the chief portion of the inheritance. But it was more than just a title to the physical assets of a family; it was also a spiritual position. However Esau did not appreciate what he had as the tale unfurls:
“…When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; and Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.’ Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?’ And Jacob said, ‘First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
It is this biblical tale which is depicted in today’s painting, Esau Sells his Birthright by Dutch artist, Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen. He completed the painting around 1627 and is now part of a collection of his work in the Gemäldegalerie Berlin. Ter Brugghen or Terbrugghen was born in The Hague in 1588 but shortly after the family move to the predominantly Catholic Utrecht. Hendrick was apprenticed to Abraham Bloemaert, the Dutch painter and printmaker. Terbrugghen spent time in Italy in his late teens to gain some artistic experience and was in Rome during the time of Caravaggio and would have come under his artistic influence and other Italian Caravaggisti such as Gentileschi, Carracci and Reni.
He returned to Utrecht around 1616 where he and fellow artist and friend, the Utrecht painter Thijman van Galen, whom he had lodged with whilst in Milan, were registered as master painters. In that same year Ter Brugghen married Jacomijna Verbeeck, the stepdaughter of his elder brother who was an innkeeper. They went on to have eight children. Neither he nor his wife were active churchgoers. He considered himself to be a Protestant but rejected the hard-line Calvanist approach to religion. He must have had some sympathy towards the Catholic cause by the way he treated Catholic subjects in his paintings.
Today’s painting in which Esau returns hungry from hunting and sells his birthright to his brother Jacob for a dish of lentils draws life entirely from the expressive, but silent dialogue between the brothers. The fateful deal is concentrated on their hands, which are holding the bowl of lentils. Directly above this gesture, whitish-yellow candlelight forms the centre of the picture and illuminates the beautifully formed profiles of the boys, turned eloquently towards each other. The parents, Isaac and Rebecca are present in the room but seem untouched by this bargain. To the left, Isaac is bending over the table spooning up his soup whilst Rebecca, whose shadow is reflected on the side wall, busy but restrained, is behind the table carrying a copper plate. She is holding herself stiffly but with a positively dignified expression.
Hendrick ter Brugghen died in 1629 three years after completing this painting, aged 41.