After El Greco, for a generation, Spanish painting marked time with lesser men, who did their best and disappeared. Then, almost simultaneously, Francisco de Zurbarán and Diego Velázquez flooded Spain with great art. During thirty years these two served as complements to each other: Zurbarán painting like a monk frightened into adoration and near to God, Velázquez prospering in the world and close to his King.
Zurbarán was baptized at Fuente de Cantos, in southwestern Spain, November 7, 1598, son of a shopkeeper successful enough to send him to develop his talent in Seville. After two years of study he signed his first dated picture (1616), an Immaculate Conceptionwhich should have ruined his career. A year later he moved to Llerema, fifteen miles from his birthplace. The neighborhood was dotted with convents, churches, and hermitages, from which Francisco took his modest commissions and his inspirations. There he married Maria Pérez, nine years his senior, in order to legitimize his child; she died after giving him two more. In 1625 he married a widow ten years his senior, but with a charming dowry; by her he had six children, of whom five died in childhood. After her death he married a prosperous widow; she gave him six children, of whom five died in childhood. Love labored to keep a step ahead of death.
In art his creative period began with a contract to paint, in six months, twenty-one pictures for the Dominican Monastery of San Pablo el Real at Seville (1626). Having completed this assignment, Zurbarán appears to have visited Madrid and felt the influence of Velázquez. Heretofore his paintings had reflected the dark and massive style of Caravaggio, and perhaps of Ribera; now he added to his rugged naturalism a new subtlety of shadows and a refinement of finish. Soon thereafter we find him in Seville, painting twenty-two immense canvases for the Mercedarian monks—the Order of Our Lady of Mercy, devoted to ransoming captive Christians. The four pictures that remain from this group are not masterpieces; but memorable is a boyish face in one of them, perhaps the artist’s son Juan. Seville must have liked these paintings, for in 1629 it officially asked Francisco to make his home there—”Seville would be honored … considering that the art of painting is one of the major embellishments of the state.”16 Zurbarán consented.
In 1630, for the Franciscan Church of San Buenaventura, he painted some of his greatest works. One is St. Bonaventura Pointing St. Thomas Aquinas to the Crucifix: the great theologian—unfortunately a Dominican—is gently admonished that religion consists not in philosophical theory but in the contemplation of Christ. This—the theme picture of Zurbarán’s art—was stolen from Spain by Marshal Soult (1810), found its way into the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, and was destroyed in the Second World War. Another in the series, St. Bonaventura on His Bier, also taken by Soult, was sold to the Louvre in 1858 and is still there; the four figures at the left are masterly. Still finer is The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, which Zurbarán painted for a Dominican college in Seville; the mind passes in astonishment from one profound face to another—Ambrose, Gregory, Jerome, Augustine, Charles V. However, Jerónimo Velázquez was paid six times as much for the frame as Zurbarán for the picture.
Moving on to the Carmelite Church of San Alberto (1630), the busy painter showed St. Francis absorbed in humble devotion, and St. Peter Thomas, a monk wrinkled and haggard with waiting for Paradise. Returning to the Mercedarian monastery (1631), he painted some of its most revered monks; among these portraits is the magnificent Fray Pedro Machado. The year 1633 was hectic with commissions: twelve Apostles for a church in Lisbon, three pictures for the Carthusians at Seville, and ten for the Chapel of St. Peter in the great cathedral; one of these, St. Peter Repentant, still in its original place, is a striking essay in realism, perhaps remembering Ribera.
Zurbarán was now in such wide demand that he delegated much of his work to his aides. For the Monastery of Guadalupe in Estremadura he painted The Temptation of St. Jerome, in which the head and the hands of the saint are technical wonders, and the gentle ladies playing music hardly deserve to have their temptations resisted. Even from Peru and Guatemala orders came; one series of Apostles went to Lima, another to Antigua; and to Mexico City went Christ at Emmaus, picturing the risen Christ as a hale and happy peasant at a meal. Some of these canvases were done in haste or by proxy, and Zurbarán had to sue Lima for his fee.
From 1645 his ascendancy at Seville was challenged by the young Murillo, who supplied churches and convents with such tender illustrations of the Christian story that the demand for Zurbarán’s disconcerting realism sharply declined. The older artist tried to soften his terrors, and for a time he strove to rival Murillo in pious and domestic sentiment, as in The Virgin and Child with St. John (now in San Diego, California); but this new style was uncongenial to his art and mood. He moved to Madrid (1658) to repair his fortunes, but Philip IV, himself penniless, found nothing better for him to do than to decorate a hunting lodge. Velázquez was kind to him, but suddenly Velázquez died. Zurbarán outlived his friend and his fame.
His reputation hardly surmounted the Pyrenees until Napoleon’s generals took a fancy to Zurbarán’s monumental monks and somber saints and kidnaped some of them to France. When the Spanish monasteries were secularized in 1835 more of his work came to Paris, and in 1838 King Louis Philippe opened in the Louvre a Spanish Gallery with four hundred paintings, of which eighty were ascribed to Zurbarán. Our present taste finds his range too narrow and monastic, his spirit too gloomy and entranced. We miss in him the ragamuffins of Murillo and the philosophers and pretty princesses of Velázquez. And yet there is in his work a solid sincerity, a depth of dedication, a power of color and form, that lift him beyond the realm of transient preferences and ensure his place in the remembrance of men.