Jacopo Bassano’s The Miracle of the Quails, 1554, has been rarely seen by scholars and never by the public
By Staff Writer
The J. Paul Getty Museum has acquired a monumental 16th-century painting by Venetian artist Jacopo Bassano, The Miracle of the Quails, among the artist’s most ambitious works and has never been seen by the public.
“The Miracle of the Quails is an exceptional example of Bassano’s distinctive artistic style and his juxtaposing of historical subjects with everyday people in a state of poverty. Although it is widely recognized as one of his most extraordinary artistic achievements, it has been rarely seen by scholars and never by the general public,” says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “With its grand scale, this striking and daring painting will become a centerpiece of our 16th-century northern Italian paintings gallery, alongside works by Titian, Veronese, Savoldo, Lotto, and Dosso Dossi.”
The painting was commissioned in 1554 by the Venetian nobleman Domenico Priuli; payments are documented in Jacopo’s Libro de’ conti (Account book), where the picture is described as “l’istoria como vene le cotornice al populo d’Israel” (“the story of how the quails were sent to the people of Israel”). The subject is a rare depiction of the Old Testament episode of the Miracle of the Quails, mentioned in the books of Exodus and Numbers. A single line from the Old Testament’s text turns into a monumental (the painting is 92 inches long) and complex composition.
Guided by Moses and his brother Aaron, the Jews left behind a life of oppression, slavery, and deprivation in Egypt. But they are now stuck in the desert, angry with their leaders because of the lack of food. In the painting, high priests Aaron and Moses are portrayed on the left in close conversation, while the rest of the canvas is occupied by an animated and naturalistic depiction of the people of Israel who gather the birds that have miraculously fallen from the sky. The landscape in the background, evocative of the Prealps and the Monte Grappa that dominate Bassano (Jacopo’s hometown), is suggestively populated with the tents of the Israelite’s camp.
Jacopo’s range of colors is notable, with floral rose, pallid green, chocolate brown, and lustrous white, applied with a fluid pattern of improvised brushstrokes. The figures are rendered with elegant artifice, from the statuesque standing woman at the center of the composition to the sinuous Moses on the left, the almost abstract figure of Aaron in profile, and the delicate mother and child who dominate the right side of the canvas.
The painting was almost certainly conceived as a pendant of another masterpiece by Bassano, Lazarus and the Rich Man, today at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Cleveland painting is very likely identifiable with a large painting commissioned by the same patron, Domenico Priuli, in 1551. The two paintings have in common the compositional ambition, the stark contrast of light and shade, and a palette characterized by earthy tones, animated by sudden sparks of brighter colors, applied with free brushstrokes. The pairing of two subjects from the Old and New Testament reinforces the idea that they were executed as pendants: just as the denial of sustenance on the part of a selfish man is the theme of the Cleveland picture, in The Miracle of the Quails it is God’s beneficent care of his chosen people.
Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510–1592) is perhaps the least known of the great painters of 16th-century Venice—a circle that includes Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Lorenzo Lotto. Increasingly, however, Bassano is being recognized as the creator of some of the most astonishing and original pictures of the 16th century—works that combine acute attention to naturalistic detail with elegantly choreographed figures.
“This painting perfectly embodies the genre to which Bassano owed his fame during his lifetime: the depiction of biblical themes with a pastoral character, where realistic details from everyday life are incorporated into compositions of great formal sophistication. Black shadows prevail and deeply resonant colors gleam from thick layers of pigment. Precisely drawn surface details have blurred into roughly applied swaths of loose brushstrokes. This almost abrupt but highly calculated simplicity lends the picture a mysterious and poetic aura,” says Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum.
Getty’s collections currently include a powerful portrait by Bassano, one of the very few that he painted, and a beautiful drawing, Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple, executed with his characteristic technique of black and colored chalks.
The Miracle of the Quails will feature prominently in the Getty Museum’s North Pavilion galleries in proximity to paintings by his Venetian contemporaries Titian, Veronese, Savoldo, and Lotto. The painting will be on view from early November 2021 in Gallery N205 of the Getty Center.