Francisco de Zurbaran Biography1598-1664
Spanish Baroque Painter
In childhood he set about imitating objects with charcoal. His father sent him, still young, to the school of Juan de Roelas in Seville. Zurbarán soon became the best pupil in the studio of Roelas, surpassing the master himself. Even though Seville was full of able painters, he left with a solid reputation.
He may have had here the opportunity of copying some of the paintings of Michelangelo da Caravaggio; at any rate, he gained the name of the Spanish Caravaggio, owing to the forcible, realistic style in which he excelled. He constantly painted direct from nature, following but occasionally improving on his model; and he made great use of the lay-figure in the study of draperies, in which he was peculiarly proficient. He had a special gift for white draperies; as a consequence, the houses of the white-robed Carthusians are abundant in his paintings. To these rigid methods, Zurbarán is said to have adhered throughout his career, which was prosperous, wholly confined to Spain, and varied by few incidents beyond those of his daily labour. His subjects were mostly severe and ascetic religious vigils, the spirit chastising the flesh into subjection, the compositions seldom thronged and often reduced to a single figure. The style is more reserved and chastened than Caravaggio's, the tone of color often quite bluish. Exceptional effects are attained by the precisely finished foregrounds, massed out largely in light and shade.
While in Seville, Zurbarán married Leonor de Jordera, by whom he had several children. Towards 1630 he was appointed painter to Philip IV; and there is a story that on one occasion the sovereign laid his hand on the artist's shoulder, saying "Painter to the king, king of painters." After 1640 his austere, harsh, hard edged style was unfavorably compared to the sentimental religiosity of Murillo and Zurbarán’s reputation declined. It was only in 1658, late in Zurbarán’s life that he moved to Madrid in search of work and renewed his contact with Velazquez. Zurbarán died in poverty and obscurity.
In 1627 he painted the great altarpiece of St. Thomas Aquinas, now in the Seville museum; it was executed for the church of the college of that saint there. This is Zurbarán's largest composition, containing figures of Christ, the Madonna, various saints, Charles V with knights, and Archbishop Deza (founder of the college) with monks and servitors, all the principal personages being more than life-size. It had been preceded by numerous pictures of the screen of St. Peter Nolasco in the cathedral.
In Santa Maria de Guadalupe he painted various large pictures, eight of which relate to the history of St. Jerome; and in the church of Saint Paul, Seville, a famous figure of the Crucified Saviour, in grisaille, creating an illusion of marble. In 1633 he finished the paintings of the high altar of the Carthusians in Jerez. In the palace of Buenretiro, Madrid are four large canvases representing the Labours of Hercules, an unusual instance of non-Christian subjects from the hand of Zurbarán. A fine example of his work is in the National Gallery, London: a whole-length, life-sized figure of a kneeling Franciscan holding a skull. It seems probable that another picture in the same gallery, the Dead Roland, which used to be ascribed to Diego Velázquez, is really by Zurbarán. His principal scholars, whose style has as much affinity to Ribera as to Caravaggio, were Bernabe de Ayala and the brothers Polanco.