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Juan de Zurbarán

A Pear and Apples on a Pewter Plate

Date
Llerena 1620 – 1649 Seville

Medium
oil on canvas

Dimension
33.5 x 42 cm

Date
Llerena 1620 – 1649 Seville

Medium
oil on canvas

Dimension
33.5 x 42 cm

A Pear and Apples on a Pewter Plate is one of thirteen paintings by Juan de Zurbarán, one of the most original still life painters from 17th-century Seville. It was acquired from Nicholas Hall by the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.
Provenance

Lorenzo Ruíz de Flores (d. 1920), Seville; by inheritance to

Soledad Ruíz y Marrón (d. 1940), married to Diego de León y Primo de Rivera, Marqués de Sobremonte; her son

Diego de León Ruiz (1923–2001), Madrid; his wife

Pilar Herreros de Tejada Cabeza de Vaca (1931–2015), Madrid; her son

Pedro de León, Herreros de Tejada, Madrid, until sold at

Alcalá Subastas, Madrid, 20 October 2022, lot 736

Nicholas Hall, New York

sold to the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, by 2024

Related literature

Alfonso Pérez Sánchez, Pintura Española de bodegones y floreros de 1600 a Goya, Madrid, 1983, pp. 76-8.

William B. Jordan, Spanish Still Life in the Golden Age, 1600-1650, Kimbell Art Museum, 1985, pp. 222-34.

William B. Jordan and Peter Cherry, The Spanish Still Life from Velázquez to Goya, London, 1995, pp. 101-11.

Peter Cherry, ‘Don Juan de Zurbarán, Sevillian Still-Life Painter’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1998, vol. 132, pp. 111-22.

Peter Cherry, Arte y naturaleza: el bodegón español en el Siglo de Oro, Madrid, 1999, pp. 255-60.

Peter Cherry, Dos importantes bodegones españoles del Siglo XVII, Madrid, 2000, 4-9.

Essay

Five tawny-yellow, rounded apples are arranged on a pewter plate on which we can see their reflection. Light gleams on the edge of the platter and flickers in impasted white highlights which enliven the surface of the apples, each carefully observed by the artist from a different viewpoint. The plate sits on a ledge which is part of an architectural surround, whose right-hand side is indicated by a faint grey wall. Isolated to the left of the platter of apples is a single pear whose curly stem adds a note of humor to an otherwise sober composition. The light, entering from the left, casts shadows of the beautifully observed and delicately veined leaf of the lower right apple on the leaf behind. Though small in scale, this still life is monumental in its visual impact. It is a characteristic and exceptionally rare example by the Sevillian specialist in the genre, Juan de Zurbarán, who died at the early age of 29, leaving behind an oeuvre of just 13 still lifes.

Until 1938, when cleaning revealed the unmistakable signature of Juan de Zurbarán on a Still life with Chocolate Service in the Museum of Western and Oriental Art, Kiev (fig. 1), the existence of Juan had gone unnoticed. That year The Burlington Magazine published a short notice announcing the discovery of a new painter of undoubted talent. Other signed works surfaced and Juan’s identity became even clearer with the publication of an article by Maria Louisa Caturla in 1957 which recorded the commission of two religious paintings from the Brotherhood of the Rosary of Carmona as well as other biographical information to do with his marriage and early death.

Fig. 1 Juan de Zurbarán, Still Life with Chocolate Service, Museum of Western and Oriental Art, Kyiv

Juan de Zurbarán was the son of the pre-eminent Sevilian painter of the first half of the seventeenth century, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) who undoubtedly trained his son as an artist. Francisco had painted in 1633 a Still Life with a Basket of Oranges (Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum, F.1972.06.P) arguably the greatest Spanish still life of the seventeenth century. However, despite the growing popularity of the genre in Seville as evidenced by the success of Pedro de Camprobin (1605–1674), the only universally accepted pure still life by Francisco is the signed and dated Norton Simon painting. A Still Life with Pottery (Madrid, Prado, P002803) is generally attributed to the older master but falls short of the quality of the Basket of Oranges and was probably painted later in life when Francisco was in Madrid. A third still life is the small Rose and a Cup (London, National Gallery, NG6566) which, if not a fragment, is probably a study for a still life element in a larger figural composition. The incorporation of still-life elements into his larger paintings was something which Francisco frequently did, beginning with the Christ and the Virgin in the House of Nazareth (Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1960.117). That work is generally dated to around 1640, exactly the moment when Juan started to develop his own career as a specialist in still life painting.

The confusion of the work of father and son persisted for years, despite the evidence of Juan’s signature on several works. When a painting of Grapes on a Plate (fig. 2) was discovered in France in the 1950s with Juan’s signature, there were scholars who refused to believe that a painting of such quality could be painted by anyone other than the father. However, thanks to the work of William Jordan, Peter Cherry and Odile Delenda, Juan’s independent artistic identity and stylistic trajectory has now been fully established.

Fig 2. Juan de Zurbarán, Grapes on a Plate, Private Collection, Bordeaux

His very early works, notably the Bordeaux Grapes on a Plate, dated to 1639 and on copper, and the Grapes on a Plate with a Linnet and Butterfly (Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, 0056 71-000) belong to a phase in his career when he had already, as a nineteen-year-old, developed his own artistic personality. These works suggest the influence of Northern artists and are characterized by a meticulous degree of finish which Juan soon abandons. By 1640, Juan’s style had developed rapidly, as is evident from the superb Still Life with a Chocolate Service (Kiev, Museum of Western and Oriental Art) from that year. With this work, Juan announces himself as a major force in the history of Spanish still-life painting. Of it Jordan and Cherry write: ‘The bright light that gives relief to the forms neither fully penetrates the shadows nor defines a lucid space as in Francisco’s Still Life with a Basket of Oranges…The objects in the Kiev still life…emerge from the darkness in a grouping that seems intuitively balanced’[1]. This painting clearly enjoyed a considerable reputation in its day as a number of works of similar compositions clearly by contemporary imitators have come to light, including one in the Thyssen Bornemisza Collection.

From around the ensuing years, ca. 1640–1643, come a group of even more startling still lifes, all painted on a small scale which depict fruit seen against a dark background. Their plasticity and the simplicity of the compositions have a striking metaphysical quality. The elements are not necessarily symbolic—although apples have multiple associations—but the simplicity of Zurbarán’s treatment endows them with a real spiritual presence. This second group of works includes a Pewter Plate with Lemons (Madrid, Academia Reale di San Fernando, 1428), a Still Life with Quinces and Grapes (Private Collection; fig. 3) and the Still Life with Apples and a Pear under discussion. Of such paintings Peter Cherry writes: “Zurbarán has observed a relatively simple arrangement of fruit placed under daylight directed from a partially open window into a dark corner of the workshop. The paintings respond to the challenge of 17th-century still life, which was conceived as an ‘imitation of nature,’ in the artistic language of the time, and a ‘copy’ of what the painter had before his eyes. But the work offers more than simply observed reality, and Zurbarán has transformed his naturalistic theme into a truly surprising and memorable visual experience. The isolation and exclusive focus on the subject, its dramatic and mysterious light, the insistent illusion of volume of the fruits, seen so closely and in such a monumental way, makes this meeting have little to do with dealing with the apples and pears of everyday life. However, as Juan de Zurbarán and his collectors knew, it is not fruits that we admire but the author’s artistic skills in recreating them on canvas and transforming humble natural objects into wonderful works of art.”[2] Of these paintings, ours has the most ambitious composition with the placement of the single pear in space to the left of the main group and the subtle but clearly visible articulation of space with the hint of a receding grey stone wall to the right.

Fig 3. Juan de Zurbarán, Still Life with Quinces and Grapes, Private Collection, Paris

Taking off the old lining showed that the painting retains its approximate original dimensions, though the left and the upper edges were trimmed at a slight angle, removing a small fraction of the original. In addition, x-ray photography shows evidence of a still-life element in the top left hand section just above the pear. This was clearly painted out by the artist. The surface of the painting itself is unusually well preserved with the glazes on the fruits intact and the inky background still intensely atmospheric. Although the background is dark, it was painted on a fine canvas over a red ground which is what gives it its warmth and chromatic density. Jordan and Cherry wrote of the painting of quinces and grapes, “The young Zurbaran has endowed the fruit with an extraordinary plasticity by the liberal use of a brownish glaze that brings the individual character of each quince into high relief”[3]; that observation applies equally to the painting now under discussion.

The final period of Juan’s short career shows the increasing influence of Italian Caravaggesque artists such as Ruoppolo and Forte, whose works were beginning to be collected in Seville in the 1640s. A fine example is the Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and Cardoon (Mäntä, Finland, Gösta Serlechius Fine Arts Foundation), which is signed and dated 1643. Yet so resistant was the scholarly community to the idea that Juan was anything more than a follower of his father that the curators of the museum, despite the signature, insisted upon attributing the picture to Ruoppolo until the 1980s. From this later group come the Still Life with Pomegranates and Grapes recently acquired by the Prado and a Basket of Lemons and Flowers, also recently acquired, in the National Gallery, London.

We see, therefore, that this painting is an important work from a key moment in Juan’s career when he was expressing himself in his most personal idiom, between the first phase when he looks to the North and the later years when he was increasingly influenced by the Neapolitan Baroque style. Jordan and Cherry have written eloquently about the individuality of both Francisco and Juan de Zurbarán. The  differences even manifested themselves in their personal lives. Juan was clearly was what we might call a dandy who styled himself with the aristocratic form as ‘Don Juan de Zurbarán’, he married well enough to squander an enormous dowry of 50,000 reales, he was an enthusiastic dancer and he wrote Petrarchan sonnets. At the same time, he was a major still-life painter in his own right. Jordan and Cherry write: “Juan’s style is so different from his father’s that there are few valid points of comparison; but within the limitations imposed by his tenebrist style, his works are not inferior in quality…During his very brief career, he emerged as one of the most creative and gifted painters of still life anywhere in Spain, attracting imitators and copyists.”[4].

We are grateful to the insights of Peter Cherry, Odile Delenda and Benito Navarrete who have all endorsed the attribution of this still life to Juan de Zurbarán and date it to ca. 1641–42.❖

Updated June 2024
Juan de Zurbaran, Still life with Pear and Apples on a pewter Plate, presented by Nicholas Hall at TEFAF Maastricht 2024
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