Zurbarán based himself in Seville, like the younger Murillo, at that time a world city and a major entrepot for the New World. His works are seen as archetypally Spanish in their austerity. It is debatable whether his dramatic chiaroscuro is due to the influence of Caravaggio (1571–1610), and the stark simplicity of his work may owe something to the monumental still lives of Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627), and the hyper-realism of Spanish polychrome sculpture.
Zurbarán worked mostly for Spanish religious institutions, and in 1629 became the official painter of Seville. In 1626 he agreed to paint a series of pictures for the Dominican monastery of San Paolo el Real. These established his reputation and one of them, a huge Crucifixion dated 1627, is in the Art Institute of Chicago. Here Christ is silhouetted against a dark featureless background, emphasizing his isolation and rejection. His next major commission was for the Mercedarian order, and one of these paintings, the Martyrdom of Saint Serapion, is at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford. The saint’s fate was grisly, but Zurbarán suppressed the worst details, merely contrasting the exhausted and lifeless head of the saint with his off-white voluminous robe. In dramatic narrative, the artist’s skills are best seen in his series of paintings for the monastery at Guadalupe (1639–1647), many them depicting the life of St Jerome. In a late work of 1655, in the Seville museum, he painted his most memorable image of monastic life, St Hugo in the Refectory of the Charterhouse. The story goes is that the monks failed to abstain from meat during Lent, so their meat turned to ashes. This was interpreted as a hint to stick to the rules. There are few paintings that depicts so compellingly the purity of the monastic ideal.
Zurbarán sometimes branched out from religious subjects He painted a series of Labors of Hercules for the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid and a few still lives. The most famous of these is in the Norton Simon Museum in California, surreal in its mesmerizing simplicity and luminescence. Zurbarán employed a large studio, and many of its products were exported to the New World. At the end of in his career he went out of fashion in favor of the softer more sentimental religiosity of his fellow Sevillian, Murillo.
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Books on Zurbarán
Odile Delenda and María del Mar Borobia Guerrero, Zurbarán: A New Perspective, exh. cat., Madrid, 2015.
Odile Delenda, Francisco de Zurbaran 1598-1664, Madrid, 2009.
Jonathan Brown, Francisco de Zurbarán, New York, 1991.
Antonio Palomino de Castro y Lelasco, Lives of the Eminent Spanish Painters and Sculptors, 1715-24, trans. Nina Alaya Mallory, Cambridge, 1987.