“Jacob Wrestling the Angel, after Bonnat”
“Jacob Wrestling the Angel, after Bonnat”, oil on panel, 20″ x 16″, work in progress
One of the paintings on my easel this winter is a painted version of Bonnat’s famous pencil and chalk drawing: “Jacob Wrestling the Angel”. It illustrates a Biblical passage from Genesis in which Jacob wrestles an entire night with a mysterious angel; the combat is usually has been variously interpreted as man’s struggle against God, against Satan, or against himself.
Further down this post you can see the original drawing, some colour studies Bonnat created for an larger work in oils, and then a set of other works of art created on the same theme.
In my opinion, Bonnat’s drawing is by far the best treatment of this biblical story I’ve seen because of the quality of the figures — especially the dramatic poses and the anatomy. The play on light and dark in the background certainly helps with the drama in the foreground. It reminds me of Rembrandt’s famous windmill painting that uses shifting tonal relationships — patterns of light against dark, dark on dark, light on light, dark against light — to marry the subject to the background and to create movement. While the figures may be momentarily locked in combat, the atmosphere around them is shifting. This drawing to me is like that an early comic book version of the story.
And I suppose it’s the comic book aspect that appeals to the 10-year-old kid in me. While there are no speech bubbles that say “Pow!”, “Take that!” or “You’re doomed so give up, mortal!”,
My version in oils is 20″ x 16″ and it’s still a work in progress. I’ve created a limited palette for the skin tones and included earth and sky colours in the background. Next, I need to clean up the edges and soften them in places.
Bonnat’s 1876 Original
Bonnat’s drawing, which measures 21 3/4″ x 14 1/2″, was created with pencil and black chalk on paper. Art historians consider it either a highly finished study for a painting Bonnat once exhibited, now lost — or a variant after that lost painting. I’ve come across two small colour studies that Bonnat apparently created for this painting.
Bonnat exhibited the lost painting, with dimensions 31.9″ x 21.3″, at the Paris Salon of 1876. An English art critic gave it the thumbs down: “M. Bonnat’s Jacob Wrestling with the Angel is ineffective…[It] is neither a simple group of wrestlers, nor does it bring before us the despair, the futility of the struggle between the finite and the infinite, the poetic truth of the story, the pity of human strength madly wasting itself against the inevitable, the irresistible–the grandeur and the pathos of a struggle…” The critic does admit, however, a mild admiration for the wrestling figures, stating that they are “treated with the characteristic force, and even heaviness of touch, usual with M Bonnat. The forms, too, of these figures are also, as usual with M Bonnat, somewhat ignoble, but there is good and serious work, and parts are rendered with the skill and vigour of a master.”
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Other Versions of the Same Theme
In the gallery below, you can see seven other versions of Jacob Wresting with the Angel in or by:
Gutenberg Bible (1558), Rembrandt (1659), Gustave Dore (1855), Eugene Delacroix (1861), Alexander Lois Leloir (1865), Gustave Moreau (1878), and Paul Gauguin (1888).
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