Europe 1300 - 1800
- A Still Life of Global Dimensions: Antonio de Pereda’s Still Life with Ebony Chest
- Juan Sanchez de Cotán, Quince, Melon and Cucumber
- Velázquez, The Waterseller of Seville
- Velázquez, Los Borrachos or the Triumph of Bacchus
- Velázquez, Vulcan's Forge
- Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda
- Velázquez, Las Meninas
- Velázquez, Las Meninas
- Zurbarán, The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion
- Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Philip
- Jerónimo de Balbás, Altar of the Kings (Altar de los Reyes)
- Making a Spanish polychrome sculpture
- Pedro de Mena, Ecce Homo and Mater Dolorosa
- Juan Martínez Montañés and Francisco Pacheco, Christ of Clemency
- Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables
- Josefa de Óbidos, Christ Child as Salvator Mundi
- The Abduction of Helen Tapestry
- Baroque art in Spain
Juan Sanchez de Cotán, Quince, Melon and Cucumber
By Dr. Sally Hickson
Juan Sánchez Cotán, Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, c. 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.46 cm (The San Diego Museum of Art)
Stark, spare, meticulous
This starkly simple by Juan Sánchez de Cotán is the kind of life-long puzzle that makes for great contemplative fodder on long plane rides and sleepless summer nights. What could a cabbage, cucumber, melon, and quince mean? Is there some underlying universal truth at the heart of their stark, spare, meticulous arrangement within the window’s inky, impenetrable darkness? Completely different from the voluptuous pronkstilleven, the ostentatious seventeenth-century still lifes of Dutch art—with their luscious lobsters, silver chargers, and glass vessels strewn in careless abandon—Cotán’s pristine austerity is akin to a vegetal altar.
Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Still Life with Ham, Lobster and Fruit, c. 1653, 75 x 105 cm (Boijmans Museum, Rotterdam)
Cotán was a pioneer of the Spanish still life bodegón, an arrangement of simple foodstuffs. Some historians have suggested he drew his inspiration from his own ascetic piety. Born in Orgaz, his art developed in completely the opposite direction from El Greco, whose profuse and luxurious altarpiece of the Burial of Count Orgaz is located in the Cathedral of San Tomé, Toledo, where Cotán had a studio. Cotán's still lifes, however, belong to his secular period before entering the monastery, after which he took up religious painting, later electing to leave the monastery and dying as a lay brother in Granada.
El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586, oil on canvas, 460 x 360 cm (Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain)
If these still lifes are not deliberations, or early meditations on vegetarianism, what could they possibly mean? What of the quince and cabbage, suspended, as was typically done in country kitchens, to keep them from spoiling? Why a sectioned melon, seeds exposed, a quivering sliver sitting on the sill beside the cut fruit? The final member of the quartet is the intact cucumber, pushed over the edge of the sill toward the viewer, completing a sequence of gradual emergence from the window’s depths. In fact, the gradual, emergent curvilinear plane has been compared to hyperbola, suggesting that such paintings, which were generally made for an educated, secular clientele, were perhaps understood as geometric meditations.
Archimedes was first translated and published by Federico Commandino in 1565 (Archimedis De iis quae vehuntur in aqua libri duo/ a Frederico Commandino restituti et commentariis illustrate), at approximately the same time that he published his own De Centro Gravitatis. Commandino’s work was followed by Luca Valerio’s De Centro Gravitatis in 1604—confirming a strong contemporary interest in spherical bodies that might be related to Cotán’s still-life experiments.
Detail, Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, Juan Sánchez Cotán, 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm (San Diego Museum of Art)
Empire and conversion
Others have suggested that the arrangement of spheres and sectioned semi-spherical fruits and vegetables is to be understood in terms of astronomy, a representation of celestial bodies moving against the night sky, possibly in relation to celestial navigation. Spain was, of course, at the forefront of exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Or, they could represent specific celestial bodies in their various phases, although Galileo did not turn his telescope toward the moon until 1609. Finally, all four of the items here were introduced from Europe for cultivation in the Americas, perhaps alluding, however obliquely, to Empire and conversion.
Read a Reframing Art History chapter on The global baroque: secular matters.
Essay by Dr. Sally Hickson
Want to join the conversation?
- I can definitely see the geometry within the cuts of the melon. Very sharp, precise and mathematical. I have to say I am quite a huge fan of "still lifes" whether they be minimalist like this one or whether they be "busy" like the Dutch style.(5 votes)
- I have seen a mix look of dutch, and spanish in some paintings, does, or has anyone else noticed this?(4 votes)
- This made me hungry........for art!(3 votes)
- We are all hungry for art, i hope. Life is art, if you know how to view it, just my opinion. Lets all keep art alive!!(2 votes)
- Are these related to Ziberrin paintings? I may have misspelled, need to do more research. I really like still life art, very poetic. brought wonderful artwork into the new world. At3:41. The coloring is perfect, very realistic on the cut into fruits. Love this!(3 votes)
- What is the 4th item ? Quince, cucumber and cabbage -- I count three.(0 votes)
- I like this painting, very austere and monastic. But the 17th-century still lifes of Dutch art are not all voluptuous. There was an artist called Adriaen Coorte, the compositions of his paintings are simple as well. His still life paintings conveying both grandeur and fragility of the objects. Sadly Adriaen had been forgotten for 300 years, and was rediscovered in the 1950s.(1 vote)