The reunion of Yaakov and Esav (Bereshit 33) has been interpreted in contrasting ways by both commentators and artists alike. The three paintings shown here, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau (1625-28) by Rubens,1 Meeting of Jacob and Esau (1844) by Hayez,2 and Jacob and Esau (1878) by Watts,3 all portray the same moment in the scene. Yet, they differ in how they illustrate the brothers' interaction, garb, and respective entourages. These choices reflect different readings of the relationship between the brothers and the motives for their actions.
Ruben's painting is vibrant with color and movement. In the middle, Yaakov kneels before an armored Esav, who is reaching out to greet his twin. Yaakov's four wives and servants watch from behind, as their cattle and sheep graze around them. Two infant children wriggle in their mother's arms. Esav, too, is flanked by his supporters, but they are armed men with spears and horses, ready for battle.4
Hayez paints his canvas in muted tones, setting a calmer mood for the scene. On the right, Yaakov bows his head and embraces Esav, while Esav gazes over him at Yaakov's wives and sons. Two of Yaakov's wives, presumably Leah and Rachel, are prominently displayed, while the other two are somewhat obscured.5 The children range in age. The younger ones clamber on the camels or hide behind their mothers, while the older ones stand up front to watch the reunion.
In contrast to Rubens and Hayez, Watts chooses to focus exclusively on the two brothers. They cover the whole canvas, and the only suggestion of any accompanying family is two faces that peek through from afar. The brothers are painted in a bronze hue, lending them an almost sculptured look. Esav is positioned to the right, with his hands on Yaakov's neck and his head posed to kiss him. Yaakov stands with his hand raised, apparently not ready to embrace his brother.6
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Rubens paints Esav in full battle gear, his armed men standing right behind him. Hayez, in contrast, portrays him in everyday garb, coming alone to greet Yaakov while his men wait at a distance. Watts' presentation is somewhere in the middle, depicting Esav with a sheath of arrows but without armor. In his image, neither brother is flanked by family or servants. The different portrayals make one question Esav's intentions when coming to meet Yaakov. Was he approaching with an army of 400 men intent on battle, as Yaakov feared, or was he coming in peace with his men serving as an honor guard?7 See Esav: Friend or Foe for elaboration.
Both Rubens and Hayez depict Yaakov in a conciliatory pose, prostrating himself before his brother, as Esav opens his arms to embrace him. Watts, too, paints Esav reaching his arms out towards Yaakov, but instead of hugging Yaakov to his chest in affection, he appears to grasp his neck as if about to choke him. Is there any hint in the Biblical text that Esav's hug and kiss were insincere, or that his actions hid more sinister intentions? From a straightforward reading of the text it appears that Esav's embrace was heartfelt, but midrashic and later sources view the Masoretic dots atop the word "וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ" as a clue that all was not as it seemed.8
12 Children in 6 Years?
The two children in the painting by Rubens are depicted as infants, whereas the boys in Hayez's image span a much wider array of ages. How young could any of Yaakov's children have been at the meeting? What is the possible range between oldest and youngest? The questions relate to a difficulty in the Biblical text. The simple reading of Bereshit Chapters 29-30 suggests that Yaakov's wives bore him children consecutively, but the verses also suggest that all twelve9 were born in a period of only slightly more than six years.10 This contradiction leads some commentators to propose that some of the pregnancies must have overlapped,11 and others to suggest that there was a period of more than six years in which the children were born.12 See The Births and Relative Ages of Yaakov's Children for more.