The First Zobel
The Fernando Zobel that started it all — the artist’s first-ever oil painting by his own handwritten account — provides precious insight to the artist’s early years.
Zobel would write a close friend’s mother, Mrs. L.L. Rocke, on 3 February 1972, about this work. “As you probably know, it is the first (underscore supplied by Zobel) oil painting I ever did (and) is a copy of Van Gogh.”
Zobel and Van Gogh were as diametrically opposite as they come: Fernando Zobel was born into a wealthy and influential family; his father was the industrialist Enrique Zobel. Vincent Van Gogh’s father was an austere minister and his family, as he did, struggled. Zobel would graduate from Harvard University; Van Gogh, on the other hand, did not even complete secondary school.
Zobel would have seen Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Cypresses” up close and personal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Dated July 1889, it is one of three works in his “Wheat Fields” series. (The two others are at the National Gallery of London and a smaller one is in private hands.)
His version of this enigmatic Van Gogh would have been created during Fernando Zobel’s years in Harvard, between 1946 and 1948. Zobel writes in the letter, “I did it while Bob (Rocke) and I were rooming together at Harvard.”
Of the time when Zobel would have painted his version of this famous work, The Harvard Magazine wrote in 2009, “In Cambridge in 1946, Zóbel stood out as a well-to-do student among veterans attending on the GI Bill. But becoming a regular at the private Fox Club did not interfere with his art studies or hard work in history and literature. He wrote a senior thesis on the plays of Federico García Lorca (then banned in Spain) and graduated magna cum laude in three years.”
Earlier, the magazine reports, “He (had) returned home the day after Pearl Harbor and spent most of 1942 in a torturous orthopedic bed, trying to recover from the neck and spinal problems that had been his bane since childhood. In 1943, his father died from lack of treatment for an infection. Zóbel coped by studying and by reading intensely. In 1945, after liberation, an American family friend urged him to apply to Harvard.”
Thus the undulating, grass-colored sky and bold yellow field perhaps demonstrate a young man’s optimism — a relief from his dark Manila days and a completely different world view from the sufferings of Van Gogh.
-Lisa Guerrero Nakpil