This post is a short tour of Spanish still life paintings. It is inevitable that I am biased by my preferences and so we will only visit some of my favorite Spanish still life paintings. This of course does not mean that there are not many more. The presentation sequence has a time orientation, from older to younger, albeit a soft one.
But why Spanish still life? Because it is special. Spanish still life is “rough” and “intense” compared to the still life of the Dutch, the Flemish, the French, or the Italians. One might also call it “austere”, and in some cases “brutal”. Spanish still life has no bells and whistles, it goes for the “essence” of things.
Bodegon in Spanish is a cheap eating-house, a tavern. It is also the area of the house near the kitchen, where the servants and ordinary people can lay out the food and drinks and munch while cooking, drink, and be happy.
This duality in the meaning of the word has resulted in a duality of the meaning of the term in painting. Bodegones can thus be still life painting,s but also paintings portraying servants and ordinary people in the house’s bodega, or in a tavern.
A still life typically contains objects like vessels, flowers, dead animals, food, a skull, human or animal, a clock.
Juan Sanchez Cotan: Bodegón de caza, hortalizas y frutas (Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit), Prado Museum, Madrid
1602. Oil on canvas, 68 x 88.2 cm.
Juan Sánchez Cotán puts the food items on a display window, most of them hanging. There is simplicity and austerity in the picture, and a clear disposition to play with curves contrasting the straight lines and 90 degree angles. A contemporary of El Greco, Sánchez Cotán is almost materialistic.
Now lets turn to the other type of bodegon, the one depicting a scene from a home’s interior. I start with a Flemish painting and continue with a Spanish one.
Joachim Beuckelaer: Christ at home with Martha and Mary, Prado Museum, Madrid
1568. Oil on panel, 126 x 243 cm.
This is the preparation of a feast. The two women are proud, they practically show off while they display all the food that is can feed an army.This is obviously a rich house, life has a positive outlook, the light is bright, life is good!
Diego Velazquez: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, National Gallery, London, UK
Probably 1618. Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 60 x 103.5 cm.
The two women in the foreground are Mary and Martha at a later date, compared to the date of the scene in the background. The concept to combine biblical subjects with kitchen scenes was invented by the Flemish (see previous picture) and influenced Velazquez. But what a different depiction of the scene has he put together!
Gone are the opulence and glory of the Flemish picture. The house is an ordinary – if not poor – house, the food essential, and the colors are earthy and restrained. There is no exuberance here. Only the beat of everyday life.
Velazquez used the same color palette on other paintings like the water seller and Aesop.
Francisco de Zurbaran: Bodegón con cacharros (Still life with vessels), Prado Museum, Madrid
Ca. 1650. Oil on canvas, 46 x 84 cm.
Zurbaran, still life with vessels uses a color palette similar to Velazquez’ s but he is emphasizing the shape of the vessels and the light-shadow contrast more than anything else. Another difference is that judging from the quality of the vessels, Zurbaran’s still life is “upper class” compared to Velazquez’s.
Luis Egidio Meléndez: Bodegón con arenques, cebolletas, pan y utensilios de cocina (Still life with herrings, spring onions, bread, and kitchen utensils), Prado Museum, Madrid
1760 – 1770. Oil on canvas, 50,3 x 36,7 cm
Melendez, a late 18th century Spanish painter is almost unknown outside of Spain. Most of his works are today in the Prado. His still life with herrings, bread and various kitchen utensils is so direct that I feel I am in the room. A naturalist with embedded Spirit. Like Velazquez, Melendez’s household is on the everyday people’s side.
Francisco Goya: Aves muertas (Dead Birds), Prado Museum, Madrid
1808 – 1812. Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 62.5 cm.
Goya continues the tradition with his stunning dead birds.
This picture is like an elegy. It is intense, it is sad, it makes you to want to mourn for the birds, for the loss of life, even for a brief moment before their feathers are plucked and they are prepared to be cooked. Goya emphasizes Death. Even it it leads to a good meal, or even better, because of it. Nothing reduces the dramatic nature of the phenomenon. Creatures of nature have to die for man to live.
Francisco Goya: Still Life Of Sheep’s Ribs And Head – The Butcher’s Counter. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
1810 – 1812. Oil on canvas, dimensions 62 x 45 cm.
Goya created another painting along similar lines, after a visit to the market in Bordeaux where he lived at the time. The theme of death permeates the painting. Starting from the expression on the face of the sheep, to the naked bloodless ribs.
Pablo Picasso: Still Life with Sheep’s Skull, Collection of Vicky and Marcos Micha
1939. Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 61 cm
Picasso picked up Goya’s theme and gave his own interpretation. The head is black and white, announcing Guernica in a sense. The ribs are faithful to Goya’s picture, to firmly establish the link.
Pablo Picasso, Le Pichet noir et la tête de mort (Black Jug and Skull)
1946. Lithograph on paper. Dimensions 322 x 440 mm
It is inevitable that we will finish this tour with vanitas, and when it comes from a master of earthly pleasures like Picasso, it becomes even more important.
Vanitas became common in Spain in the second half of the seventeenth century, and whose evidently moralizing purpose was to emphasize on the one hand the unreliability of sensual pleasure, and on the other the fatality of death, evidenced in the corruptibility of organic nature.
Picasso obviously did not believe in vanitas per se, but being immersed in the tradition of painting and at the same time jumping out of it, knew that he had to acknowledge it and incorporate it in his still life painting, both as a visual and as a cultural component.