Sunday, 21 December 2014


Sic transit gloria mundi.”

For Art Sunday today, Francisco Zurbarán, a Spanish artist. He was born in the suburb of Fuente de Cantos in Estremadura, on the boundaries of Andalusia, Nov., 1598; died probably at Madrid about 1662. From his early years he showed great aptitude for drawing. His parents, honest peasants, placed no obstacle to his artistic tastes. While a young boy he frequented the studio of Juan de las Roclas, of whom he became a favourite pupil. Zurbarán's apprenticeship was undertaken in Seville, where he met Velazquez and became one of the city's official painters. His commission to decorate the king's palace in Madrid was most probably the result of his continuing friendship with the older, and more successful, Spanish artist.

Zurbarán was chiefly a portrait painter and his religious subjects, depicting meditating saints, found favour with southern Spain’s clergy. From 1628, he worked on a number of paintings to be sent to monasteries in the Spanish colony of Guadalupe. After 1640 his austere, harsh, hard-edged style was unfavourably compared to the sentimental religiosity of Murillo and Zurbarán's reputation declined. In 1658, he moved to Madrid in search of work and renewed his contact with Velazquez.

As he mainly worked for monastic orders, the majority of Zurbarán’s work consisted of religious imagery. Many of his theologically inspired paintings are simple, yet emotionally compelling, works that showcase his naturalistic style, as well as his skilled use of light and shadow. Zurbarán’s few secular pieces include exquisite still life images, such as “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose” (1633), and a “Labours of Hercules” series painted for the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid.

Although Zurbarán was an accomplished artist, some of his work has revealed his limitations. The creations of his workshop were occasionally of poor quality, perhaps due to his unfit assistants. And when Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s work became popular in Seville, Zurbarán found himself displaced as the city’s foremost painter, even though he tried unsuccessfully to imitate Murillo’s style. Zurbarán’s career was at its height in the 1630s. In the 1640s, monasteries offered fewer commissions, reducing his opportunities. With his domestic market in decline, Zurbarán turned to the New World, exporting a number of canvases. However, fleet seizures kept him from receiving some payments, which exacerbated his financial difficulties. In the 1650s, he once again focussed on domestic commissions, though Zurbarán no longer commanded the high fees he once had.

Zurbarán moved to Madrid with his third wife in 1658. He died there, in straitened circumstances, on August 27, 1664. Zurbarán’s artistic reputation may have varied during his lifetime, but today his best pieces mark him as a leading painter from the Spanish Baroque period.

The work above is oil on canvas, 46 cm x 84 cm, painted in 1650, and exhibited in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The painting depicts household items on a ledge: Plates and various containers, three ceramic and three metallic. The artist represents successfully different textures, shiny or matte strikingly illuminated on a black background. The very simple arrangement of elements highlights their forms and subtle colour. It is one of the few still lifes of the Extremadura master and, as is usual with him, he is content with the pleasure of painting the different shapes and textures. The simplicity of the painting eludes any symbolic meaning.

1 comment:

  1. I came across Zurbaran's works decades ago and loved the religious feeling and artistic simplicity.

    In 1756, Bishop of Durham Richard Trevor bought a series of portraits of Jacob and his 12 sons, painted in 1640-45 by Zurbaran. Bishop Trevor placed his treasures in Auckland Castle and specifically had the long dining room redesigned in 1760 so that the viewer would be able to concentrate on these deeply religious pictures without distraction. What drove me nuts was that in 2001, the Church Commissioners in Durham decided to cash in on their easily sold art assets for some £20m. They didn't get away with it... but how close we were to a tragic loss!!!

    Thanks for the link