Zurbarán 1598-1664. Brief Biography and Review of his Art.

Zurbaran’s Life 1598-1664.
When asked to name some great Spanish painters, Francisco de Zurbarán may not come immediately to mind to the casual art lover. Nevertheless, he figures prominently in that celebrated group of Spanish Golden Age artists who flowered in the 17th century, including Diego de Velázquez (1598-1660), Jusepe de Ribera (1590-1652), and Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82). Lesser-known contemporaries usually include Alonso Cano (1610-67), Juan Valdés Leal (1622-90) and Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1627-85).

Born in Fuente de Cantos, Extremadura, an agricultural village about 114 kilometres (71 miles) north of Seville, Zurbarán was sent to Seville by his father in 1614 to serve an apprenticeship which lasted 3 years, after which he settled and set up a workshop in Llerena, 124 kilometres (77 miles) north of Seville and 30 kilometres (18 miles) east of Fuente de Cantos.

It is possible that Zurbarán left Seville with its lucrative market because it was difficult for an unknown artist of very modest background and with no connections to break into an artistic milieu controlled by a closed circle of guilds and family ties. In addition, his mentor in Seville, Pedro Díaz de Villanueva, was a minor artist and does not appear to have been influential. 

Zurbarán lived in Llerena from 1617 to 1629. Shortly after arriving there, he married María Páez who was 9 years older than him. She died in 1623 or 1624, following the birth of their third child. In 1625, he married Beatriz de Morales, a wealthy widow from a prominent local family.

Zurbarán, St, Gregory. 1626.

While living in Llerena, Zurbarán evidently kept in touch with events in Seville because in January 1626 he signed his first commission in the city (for the Dominican monastery of San Pablo). But he was still a largely unknown provincial painter and the amount offered for the twenty-one paintings stipulated in the contract was very small compared to what established artists in Seville could command.

Why then accept a small fee and a token advance? It probably had much to do with his improved financial (and social) status following his second marriage. In other words, his family wealth was subsiding his work while at the same time allowing him to gain entry into the most financially rewarding market for art in the country, especially for religious works.

Although few of these commissions have survived, they clearly fulfilled the demanding requirements stipulated by his monastic patrons since in 1629 Zurbarán was invited to relocate to Seville. The invitation was extended by the city council which, in the words of their spokesman, declared that “the city should attempt [to persuade] Francisco Zurbarán to remain here to live” (Brown 135b).

The invitation did not go unchallenged by the painters’ guild in Seville which in May 1630 demanded that Zurbarán pass an exam required of all painters practicing in the city. Zurbarán appealed to the city council. The outcome remains unknown but the fact that he was working on a painting in June 1630 suggests that the appeal was successful.

Zurbarán. Hercules fighting the Hydra 1634.

By 1634, Zurbarán’s prestige was sufficiently established for him to receive an invitation –in all likelihood instigated by Diego de Velázquez, whom Zurbarán had known in Seville– to contribute a number of paintings for the Hall of Realms at the Buen Retiro pleasure palace being constructed for the king, Philip IV, in Madrid. Zurbarán’s contribution consisted of ten mythological paintings on the Labours of Hercules and a battle scene, the Defence of Cádiz, which formed part of a series that included Velázquez’s famous Surrender of Breda.

However, no further commissions appear to have been forthcoming at Court despite the king’s favourable view of him. By 1635 Zurbarán was back in Seville where he remained until 1658.

Between 1635 and 1640, Zurbarán completed numerous commissions for various monastic orders from Seville, Llerena, Marchena, Arcos de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera and from as far away as Guadalupe.

By the late 1630s, he also found a new market in the American colonies. The demand was high and most of the paintings were in fact executed by Zurbarán’s assistants. Furthermore, they were not usually commissioned but painted on speculation and handed over to the captain of the ship carrying them who sought buyers. It was a risky business but evidently worked since Zurbarán continued the practice for some sixteen years, 1640-1656.

By the 1650s, Zurbarán star was beginning to fade as younger artists –offering different visions– competed for commissions and Zurbarán’s austere, ascetic style became largely irrelevant to be replaced a more sentimental piety best represented by the man who supplanted him as Seville’s main painter, Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82).

At the same time, a more theatrical, energetic style emerged with another Sevillian artist, Juan Valdés Leal (1622-90): e. g. compare the more sculptural rendition by Zurbarán of the Temptation of St. Jerome (1640) with Valdés Leal’s theatrical version (1657). A glance at Valdés Leal’s Miracle of St. Ildephonsus, 1661, –a canvas overflowing with riotous, frenetic activity— further shows how far Zurbarán was removed from this energetic style. 

Herrera. The Triumph of St. Hermenegild. 1654.

Yet another challenge came from Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1627-85). Also born in Seville, Herrera left the city in his early youth over disputes with his father and did not return until 1655, by which time he had been exposed to the latest artistic fashion in Italy and Madrid. One work, The Triumph of St. Hermenegild, 1654, immediately established, with its emotional appeal, his credentials in his native city.

Zurbarán’s fading star in the face of such challenges may well have prompted him to head back to Madrid in 1658 which had by now replaced Seville as the “place to be” for artists. But there was also another more prosaic factor: financial problems from the decline in commissions in Seville, and in 1656 and 1657 the destruction of the fleets from the New World by the English, which ruined many in Seville, including Zurbarán.

This time, although he did receive some minor commissions, the reception in Madrid was not as effusive as it had been in 1634; Zurbarán’s artistic temperament was too set in its ways to allow him to adapt to the new style successfully.

His last years were a struggle and his health declined but whether he died in poverty, as some claim, in uncertain; what is clear, however, is that by now his fame as artist had declined. 

Brief Review of Zurbarán’s Art.
Zurbarán is known almost exclusively for his religious works portraying saints, monks, martyrs, with some others of Christ, the Virgin, Holy Family etc., commissioned mainly by monastic orders in Seville and nearby towns. In general, these paintings are marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline and austerity more attuned to ascetic contemplation than sentimental emotions/feelings evidenced in much of the art of the period.

Complementing the sobriety of his style is the practice of tenebrism, a style of painting whereby figures are dramatically illuminated against a dark background by a shaft of light. This device owes much to the influence of the Italian master Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1573-1610), so much so that Zurbarán was frequently referred to the Spanish Caravaggio.

However, an interesting exception to the simplicity and austerity evident in the male saints etc. is the surprising number of young female saints and martyred virgins many of whom were dressed in elegant, colourful garments. In these paintings, the clothes are what catch the attention and we require symbols –associated with the saints/virgins– to identify the works as religious in intent.

It was not that Zurbarán was unfamiliar with the prevailing trends in Seville especially of, for example, Italian-inspired images of the Virgin surrounded by clouds with angels, cherubs, doves and putti. But this type of painting seemed to suit his personality less than the sober presentation of monks and saints, the portrayal of whom was governed furthermore by the requirements stipulated by the monastic orders that commissioned them. A painting of the Immaculate Conception (1632, one of several that Zurbarán did) and The Annunciation (1637) show this more florid type:

Other kinds of paintings by Zurbarán are few.  His most accomplished are his “Still Lifes,” a genre that had become increasingly popular and which found in Zurbarán one of its best practitioners. Notable are Still Life with Lemons and Oranges and Rose (1633), Agnus Dei ( of which there are several versions), and Still Life with Vessels (c. 1650).

Zurbarán Still-life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose. 1633.

As for the rest, we are left with 10 mythological paintings entitled The Labours of Hercules for Philip IV’s Hall of Realms in the newly-built Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid, a historical piece, The Defence of Cádiz, (both done in 1634 during a brief stay in Madrid), and some isolated pieces: Portrait of a Boy (the Duke of Medinaceli)?, Funeral ?, Portrait of Dr. Juan Martínez de Serrano ?, and Battle between Christians and Muslims at El Sotillo 1637-39.


Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 New Haven and London 1998.
Glendinning, O. N. V “The Visual Arts in Spain,” in Russell, P. E. ed. Spain. A Companion to Spanish Studies, pp. 500-502 New York 1987.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Zurbaran Exhibition 1987: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Zurbaran
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Image of St. Francis in Meditation by Zurbarán: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francisco_de_Zurbar%C3%A1n_-_Meditation_of_St_Francis_-_WGA26054.jpg
Image of St. Apollonia by Zurbarán: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Apollonia_(Zurbar%C3%A1n)
Image of Father Juan de Carrión by Zurbarán: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zurbar%C3%A1n_-_Delenda,_145.png
Image of The Immaculate Conception by Zurbarán: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immaculate_Conception_(Zurbar%C3%A1n)
Image of The Annunciation by Zurbarán: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Anunciaci%C3%B3n,_por_Francisco_de_Zurbar%C3%A1n.jpg
Image of Still Life with Oranges, Lemons and Rose by Zurbarán: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Still_Life_with_Lemons,_Oranges_and_a_Rose
Image of St. Gregory by Zurbarán: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francisco_de_Zurbar%C3%A1n_040.jpg
Image of Hercules fighting the Hydra: Francisco de Zurbarán – Galería online, Museo del Prado., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45236203.
Image of The Temptations of St. Jerome by Zurbarán: https://www.wikiart.org/en/francisco-de-zurbaran/the-temptation-of-st-jerome-1639.
Image of The Temptations of St. Jerome by Juan Valdés Leal: http://www.spainisculture.com/en/obras_de_excelencia/museo_de_bellas_artes_de_sevilla/las_tentaciones_de_san_jeronimo.html
Image of Miracle of St. Ildephonsus by Valdés Leal: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Juan_de_Vald%C3%A9s_Leal_,_Miracle_of_St_Ildefonsus_01.jpg
Image of St. Hermenegild by Francisco de Herrera: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_Herrera_el_Mozo


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