Francisco de Zurbarán

Creator Name: Francisco de Zurbarán
Creator Type: Art
Dates: 1598 - 1664
Language: Spanish

Francisco de Zurbarn ([fanis.ko e u.aan]; baptized 7 November, 1598 27 August, 1664) was a Spanish painter. He is known primarily for his religious paintings depicting monks, nuns, and martyrs, and for his still-lifes. Zurbarn gained the nickname "Spanish Caravaggio," owing to the forceful use of chiaroscuro in which he excelled.


Zurbarn was born in 1598 in Fuente de Cantos, Extremadura; he was baptized on 7 November of that year. His parents were Luis de Zurbarn, a haberdasher, and his wife, Isabel Mrquez. In childhood he set about imitating objects with charcoal. In 1614 his father sent him to Seville to apprentice for three years with Pedro Daz de Villanueva, an artist of whom very little is known.

Zurbarn's first marriage, in 1617, was to Mara Paet who was nine years older. Mara died in 1624 after the birth of their third child. In 1625 he married again to wealthy widow Beatriz de Morales. On 17 January, 1626, Zurbarn signed a contract with the prior of the Dominican monastery San Pablo el Real in Seville, agreeing to produce 21 paintings within eight months. Fourteen of the paintings depicted the life of Saint Dominic; the others represented Saint Bonaventura, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the four Doctors of the Church. This commission established Zurbarn as a painter. On 29 August, 1628, Zurbarn was commissioned by the Mercedarians of Seville to produce 22 paintings for the cloister in their monastery. In 1629, the Elders of Seville invited Zurbarn to relocate permanently to the city, as his paintings had gained such high reputation that he would increase the reputation of Seville. He accepted the invitation and moved to Seville with his wife Beatriz de Morales, the three children from his first marriage, a relative called Isabel de Zurbarn and eight servants. In May 1639 his second wife, Beatriz de Morales, died.

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 Zurbarn's reputation declined. Beginning by the late 1630s, Zurbarn's workshop produced many paintings for export to South America.

On 7 February, 1644, Zurbarn married a third time with another wealthy widow, Leonor de Torder. It was only in 1658, late in Zurbarn's life, that he moved to Madrid in search of work and renewed his contact with Velzquez. Popular myth has Zurbarn dying in poverty, but at his death the value of his estate was about 20,000 reales.


It is unknown whether Zurbarn had the opportunity to see the paintings of Caravaggio, only that his work features a similar use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism (dramatic lighting). The painter thought by some art historians to have had the greatest influence on his characteristically severe compositions was Juan Snchez Cotn. Polychrome sculpturewhich by the time of Zurbarn's apprenticeship had reached a level of sophistication in Seville that surpassed that of the local paintersprovided another important stylistic model for the young artist; the work of Juan Martnez Montas is especially close to Zurbarn's in spirit.

He painted his figures directly from nature, and he made great use of the lay-figure in the study of draperies, in which he was particularly 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, Zurbarn 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 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. Backgrounds are often featureless and dark. Zurbaran had difficulty painting deep space; when interior or exterior settings are represented, the effect is suggestive of theater backdrops on a shallow stage.

Zurbaran's late works, such as the Saint Francis (c. 16581664; Alte Pinakothek) show the influence of Murillo and Titian in their looser brushwork and softer contrasts.

Artistic legacy

In 1631 he painted the great altarpiece of The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas, now in the Museum of Fine Arts of Seville; it was executed for the church of the college of that saint. This is Zurbarn'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 for the retable of St. Peter in the cathedral of Seville.

Between 1628 and 1634 he painted four scenes from the life of St. Peter Nolasco for the Principal Monastery of the Calced Mercedarians in Seville. In Santa Maria de Guadalupe he painted multiple large pictures, eight of which relate to the history of St. Jerome; and in the church of Saint Paul, Seville, a figure of the Crucified Saviour, in grisaille, creating an illusion of marble. In 1639 he completed 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, the only group of mythological subjects from the hand of Zurbarn. A fine example of his work is in the National Gallery, London: a whole-length, life-sized figure of a kneeling Saint Francis holding a skull.

Jacob and his twelve sons, a series depicting the patriarch Jacob and his 12 sons, is held at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham, England. In 1835, paintings by Zurbarn were confiscated from monasteries and displayed in the new Museum of Cdiz.

His principal pupils were Bernab de Ayala, Juan Caro de Tavira, and the Polanco brothers; others included Ignacio de Ries.

Zurbarn was the subject of a major exhibition in 1987 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which traveled in 1988 to Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris. In 2015 the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid presented Zurbarn. A New Perspective.

Selected works

  • Christ on the Cross (1627), Art Institute of Chicago
  • St Hugh in the Carthusian Refectory (16301635), Museum of Fine Arts of Seville
  • Still Life with Pots (1650), Museo del Prado (autographed version)

External links

  • Zurbarn, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF)

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