Francisco de Zurbarán
Fuente de Cantos, 1598 - Madrid, 1664
Zurbarán was christened in the village of Fuente de Cantos (Badajoz) in Extremadura on 7 November 1598. He must have begun his training in his birthplace with an unknown painter who was a pupil of Luis de Morales. This early training, which was known only to Palomino, was continued in Seville, where he joined the workshop of the unknown painter Pedro Díaz de Villanueva as an apprentice in January 1614. He started out as a painter in Llerena around 1618, but there are no surviving works from this early stage in his career.
In 1626 Zurburán received his first known commission from Seville: the paintings for the Dominican monastery of San Pablo. From this point onwards his professional activity became linked to the city of Seville, where between 1628 and 1629 he produced a cycle of paintings for the Franciscan school of San Buenaventura and a series of canvases for the cloister of the Merced Calzada based on events in the life of the order’s founder, St Peter Nolasco, who was canonised that year. These works opened up doors to him in Seville, whose council, considering him to be an “accomplished artist”, invited him to take up residence in the city despite the protests of the guild of Sevillian painters who, headed by Alonso Cano, demanded that he sit an exam in order to be able to exercise his profession there. From this point onwards Zurbarán’s art attained its height of development in a period full of successes, in which he became the leading painter in the city.
The culminating moment in his career came in 1634, when he was sent for by the court to decorate the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro palace. His Sevillian success and, without a doubt, the recommendation from Velázquez and important Andalusians who then enjoyed a prominent role in Madrid life contributed to his being commissioned to paint two battle scenes for this set, one on the Defence of Cadiz and the other no longer extant, and ten paintings on the Labours of Hercules, all of them in the Museo Nacional del Prado.
Shortly after returning to Seville Zurburán produced two of the most important works of his career: the series for the charterhouse in Jerez de la Frontera and for the sacristy of the Hieronymite monastery of Guadalupe (Cáceres), both between 1638 and 1640.
During the last years of the 1640s his fame began to wane, owing partly to the emergence in Seville of the art of Murillo, but also because his naturalist, monumental and static style was losing popularity to a taste for more endearing, luminous and decorative paintings as a result of the new religious ideology which was a far cry from the strict Counter-Reformation standards that had inspired Zurbarán’s finest works. He failed to evolve in this new aesthetic direction and, although he must have been commissioned around 1655 to execute the three large paintings for the sacristy of the charterhouse of Las Cuevas that are now in the Seville Museum of Fine Arts, most of the works produced by his workshop during this period were aimed at the American market, where his painting continued to exert decisive influence until the following century.
In 1658 he moved to Madrid, probably seeking the help of Velázquez and a change of fortune, which had abandoned him in both professional and personal aspects, as the plague that ravaged Seville in 1649 had killed his son Juan de Zurbarán (1620–1649), who had shown signs of being a highly talented painter of still-life scenes despite his short career. Although he received a few commissions from the court, such as his works for the Franciscan monastery of San Diego de Alcalá de Henares, Zurbarán’s sober and simple art failed to meet the demand for paintings that were more theatrical in appearance and his luck and life faded away in Madrid, where he died in 1664.
Trinidad de Antonio