Francisco de Zurbarán


Datos principales

Fecha nacimiento 
Lugar nacimiento 
Fuente de Cantos
País nacimiento 
Fecha muerte 
Lugar muerte 


Zurbarán was an excellent early Spanish Baroque painter. He was a contemporary of the great Spanish Golden Age painters, such as Velázquez, Murillo, Ribalta and [Ribera#pintor_en#3118]. Whereas these painters' styles evolved, Zurbarán's remained practically unchanged throughout his life. Initially this was the secret of his success but ultimately his it ruined his artistic career. He was born in Fuente de Cantos (Badajoz) in 1598, the son of a tradesman or a shopkeeper. Nothing is known about his early years although it is likely that his father would have wanted him to continue the family business and therefore taught him his trade. However, in 1614 Pedro Díaz de Villanueva, a painter in Seville, took him on as an apprentice at the age of sixteen for three years. His father's reasons for enrolling his son in this workshop are not known. There was usually a family connection to the guild where the young person received their professional training, but this does not seem to have been so in Zurbarán's case and perhaps it was his exceptional drawing talents that led his parents to be inclined towards this profession for their son. When Zurbarán started his apprenticeship the artistic scene was thriving. Seville was a prosperous city and the production rate of paintings and sculptures was spectacular, supported by commissions from religious clientele and the sales of paintings to America (all the boats heading for the new continent set out from this heavily populated centre). The main artistic figures at this time were Francisco Pacheco, Juan de Roelas and [Francisco de Herrera, the Elder#pintor_en#2205]. Of the three, Pacheco's workshop was undoubtedly the most important; he wanted to turn his studio into a kind of academy-workshop in the style of the Italians. As it was the most successful studio in Seville, its young apprentices included such illustrious artists as Velázquez, who joined the workshop in 1610 at the age of eleven. When Zurbarán initiated his training at sixteen, Velázquez had already been studying for four years. Another of Pacheco's distinguished pupils was Alonso Cano, who joined the workshop in 1616 at the age of fifteen. The only other figure that remains to be mentioned from the new generation in Seville to which Zurbarán belonged is [Francisco de Herrera the Younger#pintor_en#2206], the son of Herrera the Elder. He was slightly younger than the other painters but his style developed along similar lines, following his father's teachings. When Zurbarán completed his studies he did not return to his village but went to the neighbouring one, Llerena. He set himself up as a painter at the age of eighteen and married his first wife, María Páez, a widow ten years older than him. Two of Zurbarán's three wives were older than him and all of them came from well-to-do merchant families. They got married in 1618 and she died in 1623. In 1625 he married Beatriz Morales, also a widow and older than him. The short time between the two marriages can be explained by the presence of young children who had to be brought up properly. Zurbarán provided for what by now was a large family by working for clients in the area. His first commissions for Llerena consisted of small secondary works and some urban design, such as the fountain for the village square. However, his talent started to make itself known and in 1626 he received a commission from the convent of San Pablo el Real in Seville to paint twenty-one canvases. The large number of paintings indicates that Zurbarán must have established a workshop capable of satisfying all the commissions and that various assistants and apprentices worked for him, otherwise it would have been impossible for him to complete the work on time. If we consider that Zurbarán was still young and a relatively unknown painter, the fact that he obtained such an important commission might surprise us. An explanation could be found in the competitive Sevillian market where the production of paintings was monopolised by the great masters' workshops (Pacheco, Roelas, Varela, [Legot#pintor_en#3899], Herrera, and so on) and therefore prices were extremely high. The young painter had the skill and human resources to do the work at a much more reasonable price. The total price for the twenty-one canvases was 380 ducats. Just three years later he charged 1500 ducats for twenty-two canvases. We might ask ourselves why he accepted such a low price. All the southern part of Extremadura was under Sevillian influence and all the commissions from the region therefore went to Sevillian artists. The commission came from the Dominicans, who were one of the most powerful Orders in Seville. Zurbarán did not charge for the work but rather for the opportunity of getting his foot in the door of the impenetrable Sevillian market. In this first commission we can see the early features of his style: clumsy perspectives, lack of spatial coherence, but also a prodigious ability to depict materials, expressive intensity in the figures' faces, chromatic delicacy, rich colouring, a wide variety of whites and so on. It has been said that Zurbarán was extremely clumsy at constructing space and that this did not change in his painting. A large number of figures made him freeze and he was incapable of ordering them coherently in a realistic space. He was baffled by the laws of perspective and geometric projection discovered during the Renaissance, meaning that his spaces lack depth and order. These deficiencies are compensated by other characteristics, such as his attention to detail, depicting materials, utensils, hair, skin as if they were real, just asking to be touched. His faces are penetrating, animated and completely different to the stiff expressions painted by other artists in his workshop or in Seville itself. MOreover, he had his own special conception of colour which led him to place colours that were traditionally considered to be contrasting next to each other, and made them seem harmonious. He used bright, intense and unusual tonal ranges, such as purples, blues, emerald greens and yellows. Out of the twenty-one canvases done for this commission a few have survived: the Miraculous Cure of Reginald of Orleans, [Santo Domingo in Soriano#CUADROS#1845], and three of the Church's fathers, Saint Gregory, Saint Ambrose and San Jerome. The following year he painted his impressive Crucifixion that is now in the Art Institute of Chicago. In this painting he takes on a naturalistic tenebrist style. This aspect of the [Italian Baroque#ESTILOS#4] made a deep impression on Zurbarán's pictorial sensibility, and he adopted it as his own personal style over his career. Zurbarán's main reference points were on one hand [Caravaggio's#pintor_en#1493] paintings and on the other the arrival of a cargo of canvases commissioned by the Duke of Osuna meant that he came to know Ribera's work, the Duke's protégé, and with whom Zurbarán has most stylistic consonance. In 1628 although Zurbarán was still officially an inhabitant of Llerena, he was in fact residing in Seville, clear in his mind that his objective was the capital. That same year he signed a contract to paint twenty-two canvases for the convent of the Merced Calzada, agreeing to paint everything that the commanding father ordered. They provided him with texts and illustrations so that he could understand the Order's orthodoxy, and interpret it correctly. At this time Zurbarán's creative possibilities were practically nonexistent. Artists were not required to be original but rather to work for the client, who was the one who really conceived the painting in their imagination which would then be executed by the painter. In 1629 it seems apparent that Zurbarán was going to settle in Seville, against all the municipal laws. In his support, he received an invitation from the municipal authorities to take up residence in the city. The invitation was signed in June and Zurbarán appeared officially in the city as a painter in September. In 1630, the following year, the heads of the guild of painters demanded that Zurbarán sat the exams and went through the established controls before working as a painter in the city. The guild's power was significant, which made it important that Zurbarán had received support in the first instance to break the rules. In the face of the guild's request, Zurbarán looked to the municipal authorities for support. Alonso Cano, who had a fiery temperament, wrote a letter demanding the rules be complied with. The council however protected Zurbarán and he did not have to take the exam. In this way Zurbarán became a legal resident of Seville. The prestige he acquired after this dispute resulted in the painter rejecting minor commissions from peripheral towns that had lower purchasing power. He left these works to his asssistants, thereby his workshop made its mark on the entire Andalucian region. Each master's workshop had its own particular way of painting, that could either be fashionable or not, despite following a common style. The models done in Zurbarán's workshop normally depended on other people's engravings and drawings, offered by the client of the canvas, usually a theologian. One of the most successful subjects was Christ on the cross. Almost all the Crucifixions at that time were painted with four nails, through the influence of Pacheco's prestigious workshop (Velázquez's [Crucifixion#CUADROS#30] is an example of this). Another of Zurbarán's favourite themes was the [lambs#CUADROS#871] that functioned as a symbol of Easter sacrifice. The white of their wool represented purity and the victory of life over death. At the same time they served as preparatory sketches and studies for larger canvases that included lambs as secondary motifs. These models meant Zurbarán's reputation was enhanced to the extent that in 1634 Velázquez suggested to the Court in Madrid that he be called to collaborate with the decoration of the Buen Retiro Palace, which Philip IV had ordered to be built. He was commissioned to paint the Labours of Hercules (ten instead of twelve because there was only room in the lintels of the Sala de Reinos for ten) and two canvases on [The Defence of Cadiz#CUADROS#869] (one of which has been lost). These two canvases formed part of a series of famous battles, which included Velázquez's The Surrender of Breda and also works by Carducho, Cajés, [Maíno#pintor_en#2619] and others. After completing these paintings, Zurbarán returned to Seville in 1634 and in the documentation for subsequent commissions he appears as "painter to the King". So much success favoured his introduction into the transatlantic market. He started to export work to America mainly for economic reasons; the canvases could be charged at high prices which compensated for the enormous risk their transportation supposed; on one hand that the boat actually reached port without mishaps and secondly that the distant clients actually complied with the stipulated payments. An example of these commercial risks is illustrated by Zurbarán's first shipment of paintings to America which was completely lost. The Capitan of the boat, Mirafuentes, unpacked the paintings and decorated the boat with them for a mid-voyage party. The paintings were a series of Holy virgins, all with a beautiful, youthful appearance and dressed in luxurious outfits, perfect for the party. The unpacking and the party caused irreparable damage to the paintings, and the painter never received any payment for them. However, on other occasions he was more successful. Zurbarán received many commissions during this period, including the decoration of a boat in 1638 for a party that was going to be held at the Buen Retiro Palace. That same year he signed one of his most important contracts: the convent cycle for the Monastery of Guadalupe. It is unique because it is still conserved intact in situ, hung as it was in the 17th century. The cycle was dedicated to the Hieronymite Order and its traditional connection with the Spanish crown. The canvases had a historic-legendary character and his style has more in common than ever with that of Ribera. At this high point, his wife Beatriz died. His paintings of the following years reflect what he had seen and learnt in Madrid, especially from Bartolomé and [Vicente Carducho's#pintor_en#1498] compositions and Velázquez's colour and atmospheric landscape. The 1540s opened with a decline in the number of important commissions. There was a general economic crisis in the whole of Spain, plus an uprising in Andalusia, led in vain by the Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1641. This crisis forced painters to find alternative markets. The series for America increased, provoking an industrialisation of the models with greater collaboration on the part of the workshop; stereotyped saints were produced almost in series, with unoriginal models and even mediocre quality. They brought greater profits but they were more risky. The American convents were fervent about anything that had come from Spain. Zurbarán's work's main destinations were Nueva España (Spanish Colonial Mexico), Peru (in particular its capital, Lima), Antigua (Guatemala) and Buenos Aires (Argentina). The series were not only religious, he also painted profane motifs. This was because the clients were not only the convents, but also important civil servants in the colonies, miners who had made their fortune, Indian merchants and so on. These clients wanted series of the Apostles, Caesars, patriarchs, founding saints, the infants of Lara, Holy virgins, angels, kings, famous figures and so on. Not all the series used the same models or had the same number of canvases but they did have common characteristics. The Holy virgins were the most attractive. They were female figures represented on the move, placed along the walls of the temple nave as if they were in a celestial procession towards the altar. Sometimes they turned their beautiful faces to the faithful, with familiarity or coquetry. They sometimes also included divine portraits; noble ladies who wished to be represented with the appearance of their favourite saint or the one they were named after. The infants of Lara was another popular series, on a particularly singular and unusual theme: it was of a bloody Castilian legend about the murder of [Don Gonzalo Bustos de Lara's#CUADROS#1890] seven children, avenged by their bastard brother Mudarra. In 1644 Zurbarán married for the third and final time, on this occasion to Leonor de Tordera, a young girl who was perfect to take care of his house and estate (she was twenty-eight and the painter forty-six). At that time, his son Juan de Zurbarán established himself as an artist, following his father's models and collaborating with him. However, a terrible event made the Sevillian crisis and Zurbarán's own personal crisis much worse. In 1649 there was a terrible plague epidemic which halved the Sevillian population. Almost all Zurbarán' children died, including Juan. The adverse circumstances deteriorated even further by the change of style led by Murillo, who had begun to monopolise the most interesting commissions. This is maybe why Zurbarán started to consider the possibility of moving elsewhere. It would seem that he made an undocumented visit to Madrid between 1650 and 1652. It is clear that there was a change in style during this two-year period with a liking for sfumato and softer modelling and greater delicacy. He might have been influenced by new Baroque style of the young painters who were triumphing in Seville and Madrid: Murillo and Herrera the Younger. The painter moved to Madrid in 1658 where he sought out Velázquez's protection, returning the favour by embellishing the truth when he gave evidence about the painter in his attempt to join the Order of Santiago. He probably hoped that Velázquez would recommend him for possible commissions, which was probably the case. The painter's last years were interesting from an artistic point of view. His style became more delicate and intimate, with soft and velvety brushstrokes, luminous, transparent colouring, for private clients who wanted personal devotional subjects and smaller paintings. The large canvases that were bought in Madrid were by [Carreño#pintor_en#1514] and Rizzi. Between 1658 and 1664, the last years of his life, were when Zurbarán's work was at its purest, without the intervention of assistants, as he did not move his workshop from Seville to Madrid. He died on the 27th August 1664. His will shows he enjoyed a moderate standard of living, made possible through his trade of silks and ornaments for textiles over the last years. The canvases still in his power and his properties were sold off. In his workshop fifty engravings were found but not one book. His inheritors were his two surviving daughters. He was buried in the convent of Agustinos Recoletos in Madrid, a site in the grounds of what is now the National Library. The subjects Zurbarán dealt with over his life were official religious canvases, devotional and secular paintings for private individuals and portraits. Among his iconographies, his Immaculate Conceptions stand out, a very popular devotional subject in 17th century Spain. Also the Child Virgins, the Sleeping Virgins, and the Holy family were very popular subjects. These paintings were poetical, verging on the sentimental, and included visions of everyday Spain from that time. Another successful subject were the images of Jesus, as a child or adolescent, and the Crucifixions with four nails and two different types: Jesus dead, with his head on one side and alive, with his head lifted upwards. Zurbarán had a personal predilection for painting Saint Francis, meditating, praying, with skulls or dead. This taste was shared by [El Greco#pintor_en#2106] and perhaps gives an idea of the painter's spirituality. Zurbarán produced work which was the embodiment of spirituality and mysticism in painting.

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