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Spanish master: Xavier Bray applauds an illuminating, carefully curated survey of Zurbaran's career.

Zurbaran: Maftre de I'age d'or espagnol

BOZAR, Brussels

29 January-25 May 2014

Catalogue (French edition) by Ignacio Cano Rivero et al.

ISBN: 9789462300361 (hardback), 49 [euro]

(BOZAR Books/Fonds Mercator)


It has been more than 20 years since the last monographic exhibition on the great Spanish 17th-century painter Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), author of some of the most austere and profound religious compositions of the Spanish Golden Age. Curated by Ignacio Cano Rivero from the Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville, with the collaboration of Gabriele Finaldi, deputy director of the Prado Museum, this exhibition at BOZAR, Brussels (and previously at the Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara), presents a selection of 50 paintings that offer a well-structured narrative of Zurbaran's development as an artist. This is not an array of Zurbaran's greatest hits but instead a thoughtfully selected group of works, primarily from churches in Spain and France and private collections. A number of these works are new discoveries or works rarely seen. The result is a fresh look at Zurbaran's oeuvre. For admirers of the artist's brand of Spanish realism, a day trip to Brussels by Eurostar is highly recommended.

More than half of Zurbaran's oeuvre left Spain in the first half of the 19th century, when Napoleon's generals forcibly removed Zurbaran's paintings from churches and convents. Later, in 1835, when the monasteries were dissolved, many of his works were sold to collectors such as Baron Taylor, who was amassing a collection of Spanish pictures for King Louis-Philippe of France. Taylor obtained 141 paintings attributed to Zurbaran for the 'Galerie Espagnole' at the Louvre. While the artist's most important paintings were eventually returned to Spain, a good number remained in France. Those owned by the infamous Marshal Soult were eventually bought by the Louvre, including one of Zurbaran's masterpieces, Saint Bonaventura on his Funeral Bier (c. 1629), and in 1853, the National Gallery acquired its celebrated Saint Francis in Meditation (1635-39) at the Louis-Philippe sale in London.

Amazingly, high-quality paintings by the artist are still to be found in French churches. From the church of Saint-Romain, Etreham, a small village in Normandy, the curators have borrowed the newly discovered Christ Child Appearing to Saint Anthony (c. 1635-40), which is exhibited here for the first time, and from the church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais in Langon, near Bordeaux, is probably one of the most beautiful Immaculate Conceptions Zurbaran painted. Executed towards the end of his career in 1661, it shows how his austere style of painting gave way to a softer and sweeter manner.

The exhibition follows Zurbaran's career chronologically, interspersed with rooms arranged thematically; a notable grouping are four still lives, the sublime Still Life with Four Vessels (c. 1658-64) from the Prado, the National Gallery's Cup of Water and a Rose (c. 1630; it is probably a fragment from a larger painting), and two more decorative still lives by Zurbaran's son, Juan. Although he died of the plague aged 29, Juan seems to have painted a number of still lives. Overall, the exhibition installation is sparsely hung and dimly lit, providing a 'religious' atmosphere as well as bringing out the sculptural quality of Zurbaran's figures and draperies. Theatrical vistas emphasise the religious drama of the artist's composition. This is particularly the case with the never before exhibited altarpiece of the Apparition of the Virgin of the Rosary to the Carthusians from the Muzeum Naradowe in Poznan, Poland (c. 1638-39; Fig. 2). It is an extraordinary work; viewers are encouraged to commune with kneeling monks in white habits in the foreground. The roses thrown down by the angels are a tour de force of painting. A sumptuous Persian carpet covers a staircase in the foreground, possibly the very one recorded in Zurbaran's inventory after his death in 1664.


Zurbaran was trained in Seville between 1614 and 1617 under the painter Pedro de Villanueva, but never took the necessary exams to obtain the official diploma from Seville's guild of painters--something that was to cause him problems later when his success began to rouse envy among local artists. His first documented commission was in 1622, when he was asked to decorate an altarpiece for a church in his hometown of Fuente de Cantos that not only included paintings but also the polychromy of wooden sculptures. This he did again in 1624, when he polychromed a life-size carving of Christ on the Cross for a church in Azuaga. These works do not survive, and so Zurbaran's career is understood from 1626 when he was called to Seville by the Dominicans to provide 21 paintings for the cloister, sacristy and oratory of the monastery of San Pablo el Real. The first room of the exhibition contains the only two surviving paintings that originally decorated the cloister of San Pablo. Today, they hang high in a dark chapel in the church of La Magdalena, in Seville, and it is therefore highly instructive to see them close up. While there are some fine passages of paint--such as the crisp white chemise worn by Father Reginald in the Miraculous Cure of the Blessed Reginald of Orleans (c. 1626-27)--the awkwardness of the overall compositions and the weak rendering of some of the figures and draperies suggest that Zurbaran already had a workshop by this date.

Zurbaran's orthodox approach to religious painting, blended with a Caravaggesque realism, ensured his success with commissions for the monastic orders. In 1628 he was asked to provide 22 canvases for the cloister of the Mercedarian Order in Seville, who stipulated he and his workshop should reside in the monastery while carrying out the commission. Three of these paintings form part of the second room of the exhibition, and one sees how Zurbaran has evolved in two years. His compositions are better edited, and the figures that inhabit them have a more life-like, volumetric presence. They tell the story of the life of Saint Peter Nolasco, founder of Mercedarians. It is fascinating to see the Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Peter Nolasco (1628-30), which is a recently rediscovered canvas from the cycle and is here placed in context with other works from the commission for the first time.


The exhibition does show that Zurbaran's style retained a certain naive awkwardness throughout his career, as if he could not grapple with the rules of perspective and anatomy. This may be due to his overdependence on print sources, many of which came from Antwerp, where religious prints were mass-produced before being disseminated throughout the Catholic world. Indeed, it is fascinating to see Zurbaran's devotional art in a Northern European capital. Rather than wishing to respect academic rules, Zurbaran was more preoccupied with religious sentiment and contemplation. A visit to the nearby Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels to see panels by the Master of Flemalle and Rogier van der Weyden allows one to observe a similar interest in depicting objects, drapery, and serene facial expressions, all of which contribute to a pious religious mood at the expense of the Renaissance ideal of perspective. The catalogue points out Zurbaran's dependence on prints, as in his painting of The Young Virgin Asleep (c. 1655-60), which is based on a print by Anton Wierix.

The final room of the exhibition contains Zurbaran's last documented work, The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, signed and dated 1662 on a piece of paper that is fictively sealed with wax onto the canvas (Fig. 3). This masterpiece, whose composition may have been based on a print by Durer, shows Zurbaran at the height of his powers. The still life--the apple and pears which are reflected in the silver dish they sit in, and the young lamb who sits at Saint John's feet--are represented with characteristic clarity, combined with a portrayal of the religious figures which is at once both tender and subdued. Next to this painting on a wall of its own is the final image of the exhibition, one of Zurbaran's most sophisticated paintings, Christ on the Cross Contemplated by a Painter (1650s?; Fig. 1), a religious version of Velazquez's Las Meninas. A painter with palette and brushes stands before the Crucifixion; the jury is out as to whether it is a self-portrait, or a portrait of Saint Luke, patron saint of painters. Either way Zurbaran invites us to contemplate the question of what is real and what is illusion. The painter is depicted either in the act of creating a painted representation of Christ or contemplating a vision of it. Or could he be polychroming a sculpture of Christ on the cross, as Zurbaran himself had done at the beginning of his career? A polychrome sculpture attributed to Saint Luke was believed to exist in Sirolo, near Ancona. Francisco Pacheco, the Sevillian painter and theorist who trained Velazquez, refers to it several times in his treatise. Whether Zurbaran was using Saint Luke and his sculpture as a way of representing himself as the 17th century equivalent of the saint we shall never know, but his painting still has the persuasive effect of taking us away from our world into the realms of religious contemplation.

Xavier Bray is Arturo and Holly Melosi Chief Curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
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Title Annotation:Francisco de Zurbaran
Author:Bray, Xavier
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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