Freed from the Pressures of Fashion

Francisco de Zurbarán 1598-1664

Francisco de Zurbarán
Born: 7 November 1598, Fuente de Cantos, Spain
Nationality: Spanish
Died: 27 August 1664, Madrid, Spain

Zurbarán occupied the role of Seville’s official painter between Velázquez and Murillo, forming the trinity of Seville painters. Most of his paintings were of Spain’s devotional religious style to which he added elements borrowed from Caravaggio. His painting was a unique blend of a direct approach to religious subjects with a penetrating spiritual aura. In his later career, he painted mythological scenes commissioned for Philip IV’s Buen Retiro palace in Madrid. After decorating a ceremonial ship presented to the king on behalf of Seville he fell out of favour and spent his last years living in poverty in Madrid.

Zurbarán had a well-equipped style to tackle portraiture and still life but his true vocation was in religious subjects. His somber approach to monastic Spanish Baroque elevated his work above many of his contemporaries by the fact he embodied saints, apostles, and friars with a rigid figurative modeling and a naturalistic refined simplicity.

Saint Serapion, 1628. Oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, USA

Zurbarán became renowned for creating emotional effects by creating sharp contrasts between dark backgrounds and light foregrounds. A technique revealing not only the influence of Caravaggio but also the dramatic technique of tenebrism, the technique of depicting human shapes and facial features in shadow. Zurbarán was unique amongst his contemporaries, however, his take on his subject matter was still in keeping with the Counter-Reformation theology of 17th-century Spain.

Zurbarán, in his later works, placed his religious and mythological figures within the landscape. He was not a landscapist per se; however, his mature works show an affinity with the natural environment and a talented hand at rendering nature as part of a narrative feature. This strategy confirmed Zurbarán’s Counter-Reformation worldview that where the spiritual exists in the corporeal so the divine finds its expression in the natural world.

Zurbarán carried the storytelling legacy of the Baroque into his devotional paintings, his figures becoming more idealized, more mythical, and less realistic. This change in his art was not universally well received with some historians suggesting Zurbarán’s later works sacrificed their palpable aura of spirituality for sentimentality.

The youngest of six children, Zurbarán was born in a small Spanish town where his father was a merchant. Historians suggest Zurbarán displayed a talent for drawing from an early age and his family was willing to support his artistic pursuits. In 1614, arranged by his father, he entered a three-year apprenticeship in Seville under the guidance of Diaz de Villanueva.

Saint Francis Contemplating a Skull, 1633-35. Oil on canvas. Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA

His early training had a long-lasting impact on the direction of Zurbarán’s art. He learned his craft in the execution of religiously themed works commissioned to decorate new ecclesiastical buildings. He tackled religious themes throughout his career, however, it is unclear if Zurbarán was in fact a man of devoted to faith.

In 1617 Zurbarán refused the opportunity to enter Seville’s city guild of painters after he completed his apprenticeship, instead opting to return home where he established a business as a painter in the town of Llerena. His business was successful; however, his personal life was beset with tragedy. Is first marriage, in 1617, to Maria, nine years his senior lasted only six years due to her premature death, leaving Zurbarán with three young children. The artist married Beatriz in 1625. Sadly, their only child died in infancy.

From early in his career Zurbarán obtained various important commissions including in 1626 a request for fourteen pictures for the Dominican Order in Seville. He moved to Seville and lived in the monastery with his assistants while completing the commission., and on the promise of further work, he relocated his family to the city permanently. Once settled in Seville, Zurbarán’s independent streak began to reveal itself. In 1630 he refused to sit the exam for admittance to the Seville Guild of Painters. His reputation, however, was enough that the City Council continued to support him as it was advantageous to have a painter of Zurbarán’s skill and vision working in Seville.

In the years that followed Zurbarán secured important commissions. While mostly religious in nature, he was invited to Madrid to decorate the Great Hall of the royal palace and worked on mythological paintings analogous to the King’s glory. The ebb and flow of artistic success combined with personal tragedy continued to have an effect on Zurbarán. Political turmoil in Seville reduced local commissions. With the help of his son, Juan, Zurbarán looked to the Americas and Spanish colonies such as Argentina and Peri for new markets. This new enterprise proved prosperous; however, it was offset by further tragedy when Zurbarán’s second wife died in 16939. In 1644 he married Leonor de Tordera. They had six children, but only one survived infancy. Compounding Zurbarán’s personal loss, Juan lost his life to the plague which was ravaging Seville in 1649.

The Young Virgin, 1640-45. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA

In the final decade of Zurbarán’s life Seville became less receptive of his work. He relocated to Madrid in 1658 to seek a change of fortune and joined a circle of fellow artists including his friend Velázquez. Zurbarán received some royal commissions and requests from individual patrons who were looking for paintings for their private religious devotions. However, he failed to recapture his earlier success and his financial position declined. In his final years, Zurbarán’s health declined and he was forced to stop painting in 1662 putting a further strain on the family finances.


Masters of Art: Zurbaran by Jonathan Brown