by Roderick Conway Morris

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Master of Light Leaps From the Shadows

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 24 October 2013
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut/
Art Resource, NY/
Scala, Florence

Francisco de Zurbarán painted
the martyrdom of Saint Serapion in 1628.



The Italian art historian Roberto Longhi described Francisco de Zurbarán as 'the greatest constructor of form with light, after Caravaggio and before Cézanne.'

Longhi's comment not only acknowledged the 17th-century Spanish artist's mastery of light as a means to create form in paint, it also hinted at the powerful influence that this almost exclusively religious painter had on the primarily secular art of the 19th and 20th centuries. Cézanne is known to have fallen under Zurbarán's spell, as did other notable painters, including Corot, Delacroix, Manet, Gérôme, Picasso, Derain, Morandi and Dalí.

Despite Zurbarán's significance for artists, the first public show devoted to him was not held until 1964, in Madrid. In 1987-88, a traveling show was staged in New York, Paris and Madrid, but there has been no major monograph event since two exhibitions in Madrid and Seville in the late 1990s. And though Zurbarán was described as 'the Spanish Caravaggio' by the Spanish art historian Antonio Palomino in 1724, an epithet taken up by French and English writers over the next century, there has until now never been a solo exhibition of his work in Italy.

'Zurbarán,' at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, is the first show dedicated to the artist since the landmark publication of the first volume of Odile Delenda's catalogue raisonné of the artist's work in 2009, which identified 286 paintings as being by his own hand. It also benefits from other recent research. Expertly curated by Ignacio Cano Rivero and Gabriele Finaldi, this skillfully selected and lucidly presented show of 49 pieces offers a comprehensive survey of Zurbarán's career and is studded with masterpieces. The exhibition, on view through Jan. 6, will then travel to the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels from Jan. 29 through May 25.

Zurbarán's father was a textile merchant in the village of Fuente de Cantos in southern Spain, where the artist was born in 1598. Francisco was apprenticed to a now forgotten local painter in Seville from 1614 to 1617, during which time he met Velázquez, who became a lifelong friend. But whereas the latter forged a career in the courts of Madrid and Rome, becoming the leading portrait painter of his age, Zurbarán had a vocation for religious painting (and a deep knowledge of Spain's mystical thought and literature).

Having moved to Llerena, in his native province of Badajoz, in 1622, the artist received a commission for 15 canvases for his birthplace. Significantly, in light of the marked sculptural aspects of his paintings, in 1624 he was called on to make a carved crucifix. By the mid 1620s he was also sending cycles of works to Seville, where in 1629 he was invited by the city council to take up residence and where he would spend most of the rest of his life.

Although Zurbarán never set foot outside Spain, by the time he was training as a painter Caravaggio's work was well known there. And even if he saw few of the Italian master's originals, there were many copies in circulation, as well as Caravaggesque painters at work in the Iberian Peninsula. But whatever lessons Zurbarán learned from Caravaggio, his own paintings, not to mention his subject matter, remained distinct from the outset, not least in the intense spirituality with which he infused his images.

This is immediately evident in the first picture in the exhibition, 'Saint Serapion' (1628), from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. Zurbarán painted this for the Merced Calzada, one of the numerous religious houses in Seville that were to commission the artist, and whose former monastery is now the home of the Museo de Bellas Artes.

Saint Serapion was a 12th-century British crusader turned Mercedarian friar, who met his gruesome end at the hands of Scottish pirates. This arresting work is remarkable not only for the dramatic, Caravaggesque effects created by the tenebrous backdrop and raking light illuminating the poignantly depicted features of the tortured saint in his white robes, but also for a profound pathos that transcends mere artistic virtuosity.

The exhibition continues roughly chronologically, but also according to themes: 'First Major Commissions,' 'Visions and Ecstasies,' 'Still-lifes,' 'The Mystical in the Everyday,' 'Passion and Compassion,' 'Works for the Court and the New World' and 'Last Years: Madrid.'

Zurbarán's vibrant still-lifes have been a key element in stimulating the rediscovery of this artist in modern times, though he did only a handful of independent works in this genre. Two of the most celebrated, 'A Cup of Water and a Rose' from the National Gallery in London, and 'Still-life' from the Prado in Madrid, are on display here. The pious message of these pieces tends to be overlooked by modern viewers. For Zurbarán's contemporaries, the rose in the National Gallery picture, for instance, would have had clear associations with the Virgin Mary, and the white cup with purity and the Immaculate Conception.

These still-lifes were evidently popular in the artist's own times, as he produced several versions of some of them. And beautifully executed still-life elements play an important emblematic part in many of his other paintings - from skulls, flowers and bowls of fruit to the brilliantly lit earthenware jug, bread, olives and radishes, representing the eucharist and Christ's humility, in 'Supper at Emmaus,' on loan from the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City.

The artist's studio in Seville produced a large number of canvases specifically for export to the New World. These were typically sold at the annual fair in Portobelo, Panama, and most ended up in Peru, where many can still be found. A high proportion of these pictures, executed by Zurbarán's assistants, were of Biblical patriarchs. Only one series of such figures appears to have been painted by the artist himself and was still at his house after his death. The series is dispersed, but three curious examples that have been identified as belonging to it are on loan here from Auckland and from Grimsthorpe Castle in the north of England.

By the time Zurbarán was in his 50s, Seville was suffering an economic crisis as a result of a diminution in trade with America and of the wars in Europe, further worsened by a plague in 1649, to which he lost his son Juan, a promising still-life painter. He also found himself challenged by a new generation of artists, above all Murillo.

In 1658 Zurbarán moved to Madrid, where he remained until his death in 1664. As the last two rooms of the Ferrara show reveal, his style and palette underwent radical changes there, particularly under the influence of Raphael, whose works were by then well represented in the Royal Collection.

Among these last pictures is 'Crucified Christ Contemplated by a Painter' from the Prado. It shows an artist (possibly Zurbarán in a self portrait), palette and brushes in hand, gazing up reverently at Christ on the cross.

Zurbarán's masterly trompe l'oeil rendering of this crucified Christ make it impossible to be sure whether it is intended to represent a sculpture, a painted image on canvas or even a mystical vision. The picture remains a perfect summation of the life and work of one of the greatest of religious artists.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023