The mythical brothers Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, remain the ultimate symbol of sibling rivalry. The biblical story sees Cain kill his brother out of jealousy because God preferred Abel’s sacrifice. Many early modern artists, from Rubens to Rembrandt, reimagined the brotherly quarrel in paintings or sculptures, and sibling relationships remain a popular motif among artists. (Also read: 6 ways to prepare your child for a new sibling)

The timeless theme of sibling love — and rivalry — is the focus of a new exhibition of 100 paintings, sculptures, objects and videos from the 16th century to the present at the Kunsthalle Tübingen in western Germany.

Titled “Sisters & Brothers. 500 Years of Siblings in Art,” the exhibition combines works borrowed from national and international museums including the Tate Gallery in London and the Belvedere in Vienna.

“What we experience in our ‘family,’ whether as an only child or with siblings, exerts an influence on our whole life,” stated exhibition organizer Nicole Fritz in the catalogue. But most surprisingly, this longest and “often most intense relationship in the life of each one of us — that with our siblings” has never been the theme of an arts exhibition, she added.

Early modern sibling art

Fritz, the director of the Kunsthalle, has set out to change that. With the help of selected works, she demonstrates how depictions of siblings have changed over the last 500 years in line with societal evolution.

Beyond the tale of Cain and Abel, the difficult relationship between siblings was a strong theme in Christian mythology, such as the Book of Genesis story of the fraternal twins Esau and Jacob. Esau was so famished that he exchanged his first-born birthright — which gave him certain privileges in position and inheritance — to his younger brother for a dish of lentils.

Many artists, including the Dutch painter Rembrandt (1606-1669), painted or drew this scene, while the rivalry between Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, was also portrayed by early modern painter Nicolas Mignard in 1654.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, family ties became more important as the middle classes grew, giving rise to a so-called cult of children.

Both the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy increasingly had their offspring captured together on canvas. The 1622 sibling painting “Magdalena and Jan-Baptist de Vos, the painter’s children” by the Fleming Cornelis de Vos, for example, testifies to the upswing in Dutch genre painting with a sibling focus in the 17th century.

The Kunsthalle exhibition shows how siblings started to be portrayed as soul mates, especially by the English painters Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), or the Swiss-Austrian artist Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807).

As the bourgeois nuclear family came into being in the 19th-century, the clear division of roles between woman as domestic nurturer and man as provider created a new culture of children. In the sibling paintings of this period, virtuous sisters look after their siblings in the manner of their mother, which is typified by the painting “Careful Sister” by the Austrian genre painter Karl Böheim (1830-1870).

The ’emotional state’ of siblings

With the advent of modernism at the beginning of the 20th century, the idyllic depiction of siblings became obsolete.

In the wake of the horror of the First World War and the rise of Nazism, many artists, as exhibition organizer Nicole Fritz explains, now took a closer look at the character and emotional state of children.

Here siblings are pictured as part of an imperiled community who seek to protect each other, and who also suffer.

In Germany, Dada artist Otto Dix (1891-1969), who was later labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, painted “Children at Play” (1929), which imbued the sibling scene with the darker portends of a collapsing Weimar Republic.

After the Second World War, the depiction of siblings changed once again. In the socialist GDR and in China, the sibling motif is used for propaganda purposes.

The Chinese painter Li Luming reminds us of this in his work “Seven Sisters” from 2007: Seven radiant peasant women praise Chairman’s Mao’s Cultural Revolution, despite its horrors, with their smiles.

Contemporary sibling scenes

In contemporary art, depictions of siblings sometimes reflect personal, sometimes social or political events.

German artist Thomas Schütte, for example, comments ironically on the fall of the Wall in 1989.

In his sculpture “Four Sisters in the Bath,” the siblings mark four opposite directions in a swimming pool.

The US photographer Cindy Sherman also plays with bourgeois self-dramatization of sibling love, while the conceptual artist Christian Jankowski explores the sibling bonds in his 2020 figurative installation, “Family Constellation.”

In 500 years of art history, the sibling theme can be read like a seismograph of social change. It is a theme that concerns and touches everyone — even the only children.

The exhibition “Brothers & Sisters. 500 Years of Siblings in Art” at the Tübingen Kunsthalle runs until April, 2023.

This article was originally written in German.

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