Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)
Early Life and Works
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One of Spain's most devout Old
Masters, and creator of some of the most intense images in Spanish
painting, Francisco Zurbaran was born in the western Spanish town
of Fuente de Cantos, Badajoz Province (Estremadura), the son of a prosperous
shopkeeper of Basque descent. In 1614 he became an apprentice to the painter
Pedro Diaz de Villanueva in Seville. Three years later he moved
to Llerena, the region's most important town, where he married Maria
Paez, an heiress nine years his senior. After having three children,
his wife passed away, and in 1623 he married another woman from Llerena
- Beatriz de Morales, a widow. Zurbaran remained in Llerena for
eleven years and during his stay was strongly influenced by Spanish Quietism,
a Catholic movement that promoted an understanding of God through submissive
silence, and a program of penitential tasks, all of which naturally had
a significant effect upon his fine
art painting. He remains one of the most active
In 1626, he accepted a commission from the Dominican monastery of San Pablo el Real, Seville, to paint a series of oil paintings for its oratory chapel. One of these works, Christ on the Cross (1627, Art Institute of Chicago), effectively made his reputation. Influenced by the dramatic light and shade of the Italian painter Caravaggio (15731610), the Spanish tenebroso Francisco Ribalta (15651628) and the modelling of the Spanish Baroque artist Juan Martinez Montanes (15681649), the painting presents a naturalistic Christ whose sculptural impact is enhanced with a dark background and strong illumination. Although the limpid stillness of the body indicates death, dramatic tension is introduced by its downward sag, which causes Jesus's head to fall against his shoulder. A masterpiece of Catholic Christian art, it is a perfect example of the naturalness and clarity demanded by the Counter-Reformation propaganda campaign.
In 1629 Zurbaran relocated to Seville, where he established himself (until about 1640) as the leading painter in Andalusia. During this time he received commissions for altarpieces, religious portraits and figurative paintings, and other devotional objects from monasteries and convents of various Orders (Carthusians, Capuchins, Dominicans, Jeronymites, among others) as well as Cathedrals and other ecclesiastical authorities. Most commissions involved the portrayal of the famous saints of the monastic orders concerned. For instance, for the Monastery of the Merced Calzada, Seville, he produced a series of works (eg. Peter the Apostle, 1628, Prado, Madrid) illustrating the life of Saint Peter Nolasco, the Order's founder.
His early works often show the unadorned simplicity of wooden sculpture. The figures, positioned close to the picture surface, are strongly modelled by dramatic illumination against dark backgrounds. During the 1630s his realistic style - exemplified in his celebrated Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas (1631), one of his best Baroque paintings - gives way to a more mystical expression in works like the Adoration of the Shepherds (1638), influenced by the figuration and rapid brushwork of the great Neapolitan Spanish artist Jose Ribera (1591-1652), and the intimacy of Velazquez (1599-1660).
Painter to the King
In 1634, Zurbaran journeyed to Madrid to complete a royal commission awarded to him on the instigation of Velazquez (15991660) - by now the court painter of King Philip IV - who was supervising the decoration of the new Royal Palace in Madrid. For the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro Palace, Zurbaran created ten history paintings depicting the Labours of Hercules and a battle scene, The Defense of Cádiz against the English, the latter being part of a series that included Velázquez's Surrender of Breda. Contrary to the 17th century tradition of modelling mythological heroes on classical figures, Zurbaran chose instead to make Hercules an earthy rugged individual of exceptional strength. His success was duly recognized with the honorary title of Painter to the King.
As well as his numerous series of paintings, Zurbaran also executed many single works, including over forty paintings of Saint Francis of Assisi. The mystical ecstasy of these images is perfectly illustrated by the upturned eyes and open mouth of Saint Francis in Meditation (16351640). At the same time, Zurbaran produced a number of exquisite still life paintings, such as Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose (1633), and his masterpiece Still Life with Oranges (1633).
At the end of the 1630s, despite being at the peak of his creative powers, Zurbaran's fortunes nosedived. First, in 1639, Zurbaran was deeply affected by the death of his wife Beatriz de Morales. This was followed by the sudden collapse of the Spanish economy: a recession that severely restricted the income and expenditure of his main patrons, the Spanish religious Orders. At the same time, his austere style of painting was becoming less and less suited to the growing religious fashion for tender piety, which began to favour the soft-focus sentimentality of the Seville-born master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82).
In an attempt to offset these losses, Zurbaran began exporting to the South American market, particularly religious centres like Lima and Buenos Aires. He also incorporated more overt emotionalism in paintings such as Christ Carrying the Cross (1653). However, after a third marriage (in 1644) and four extra children to support, he found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. In 1658, he moved to Madrid, where he imitated Velazquez' style of portrait art such as Doctor of Laws (c.16581660). Sadly, his art was no longer appreciated, and he died destitute in August 1664.
The austere aspect of religious realism in Spain is best represented by Francisco de Zurbaran. The ascetic religious orders naturally made him their painter, and his best work is associated with monastic legends. His style is, paradoxically, tight, linear, and yet wholly painterlike. He freely uses the broad, dark shadow of the Caravaggians, but keeps it harmonious with his positive colour. He modulates his smooth surfaces so that they express every sort of texture. His art is both emphatic and reticent, entirely other-worldly even when it seems most specific. He is in his own fashion one of the most uncompromisingly Catholic and serious painters the world has seen, and of all Spanish Baroque painters of the seventeenth century, perhaps the most Spanish.
Champion of Ascetic Monasticism
His Rival Murillo's Pious Sentimentality
But among the laity, particularly among women, the Counter Reformation, ably seconded by the Jesuit Order, fostered a new and highly emotionalized pietism, not to say sentimentalism. The Mother of God, whether in the Nativity or in Her Assumption amid clouds, must be a very pretty and appealing girl, monastic saints cuddle the Christ-child, or passionately clasp the feet of the Crucified Christ. The attack upon the sensibilities is unsparing. Of course, Murillo is the painter who most fully visualizes this sentimental pietism. Zurbaran now and then makes concessions to it, and when he does so, in his Madonnas, Holy Families, youthful Marys in prayer or knitting, he is often sentimental to the point of silliness.
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Since there is really little development
in Zurbaran's style we may omit relatively unimportant early works and
pass to such a masterpiece of his early maturity as St. Bonaventura
referring St. Thomas Aquinas to the Crucifix (Berlin). It was painted
in 1629, as one of a series for a Franciscan convent. Like all such series
it was dispersed when the religious orders were suppressed and the single
pictures scattered in many galleries. The legend behind this picture is
that the great Dominican master of theology, Thomas Aquinas, visiting
the cell of the Franciscan theologian, Bonaventura, at Paris, asked him
the source of his divine wisdom. Bonaventura, turning his back on the
shelves loaded with the books of the great Church fathers, draws a curtain
and points to a Crucifix. Thomas Aquinas raises his hands in amazement.
Behind him a group of four Franciscans observe the scene with edification
St. Thomas Aquinas
The effect of the Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas rests largely upon the success with which realistic figures are fitted into a composition which would naturally call for stylization of the figures. Few pictures express so much spirituality through earthy elements. Zurbaran locates his vision in a loggia through the arches of which you look out to a Spanish cathedral square. Even the clouds which support his glorified saints seem as capable of meeting the weight as the roof of a limestone cavern. There is none of the conventional poetry which usually characterizes such subjects and compositions; instead, just a manly and sonorous devotional prose.
St. Hugo Entering the Refectorium
The pictures painted in 1636 for a Carthusian monastery are fine Zurbarans, being free from Renaissance influence. The most striking of the series is St. Hugo entering the Refectorium (Seville). Seven stern Carthusians are seated about a table at the moment of saying grace. From the right the aged and decrepit co-founder of the order, St. Hugo, totters in unobserved except by the waiter. The general sternness and stiffness of the composition is enlivened by the big picture on the wall and by the glimpse through a door at the right. The effect depends less on stylistic features than on energy of characterization and those refinements of workmanship which we have already described.
Labours of Hercules
Portrait of Suso
Portraits of Female Saints
Still Life Painting
Portrait of St. Francis
About Zurbaran's last years there is little
to note except an intensification of his religious sentiment and an expression
thereof which occasionally departs from his usual plain statement and
enlists mystery. Such is the case with the St. Francis (National
Gallery, London), where even with the face and eyes almost hidden in shadow
there is the fullest sense of passionate prayer. The handling of the edges
of the figure is consummately strong and delicate.
Upon his own Spain he left a lasting impression. In the Victorian Age Gustave Courbet regarded him as a marvel. When at the end of the eighteenth century the Spanish religious orders were proscribed, the museums of the world were glad to buy his dispersed pictures, with the result that he is perhaps of all Spanish Baroque artists the most accessible to art lovers generally. His incisive religious art is one of plain and complete statement and no painter less needs critical commentary. It is easy to see his limitations. To regard them as defects would be foolish, for of these very limitations he made positive qualities in his really quite marvellous illustration of the theme of ascetic piety.
Works by Francisco Zurbaran can be seen in the best art museums across the globe.