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A wicker basket is piled high with fresh lemons, seemingly just picked from a tree, their leaves still attached. Sprigs of flowers – lemon blossom, red carnations, blue delphiniums, white roses, day lilies and a tulip – are scattered throughout the composition.
A goldfinch perches on the edge of a delicate porcelain bowl filled with water, and a single lily floats on the surface. These are almost certainly intended to be symbolic: the water and lily refer to the purity of the Virgin Mary, and the goldfinch is often associated with Christ’s Passion (his torture and crucifixion) and sacrifice.
This is one of a dozen or so surviving paintings by Juan de Zurbarán, son of the celebrated painter Francisco de Zurbarán. Juan delights in conveying the texture of each object – coarse lemon rind, waxy leaves, the reflective surface of the silver tazza. In this still life he successfully combines a straightforward design with a remarkably subtle handling of paint.
This is one of only a dozen or so surviving pictures by Juan de Zurbarán, son of the celebrated Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán. Although Juan is recorded as having painted religious works these have not survived, and he is known today exclusively as a still-life painter. This work probably dates from the final years of Juan’s life, which came to an abrupt end when he died, aged 29, during the plague epidemic that hit Seville.
He depicts an array of objects with extraordinary delicacy and accuracy. At the centre stands a large wicker basket piled high with fresh lemons, seemingly just picked from a tree, their waxy green leaves still attached. Sprigs of flowers – lemon blossom, red carnations, blue delphiniums, white roses, day lilies and a tulip – are scattered throughout the composition. A goldfinch perches on the edge of a porcelain bowl filled with water, and a single day lily floats on the surface.
These objects are almost certainly intended to be symbolic. The water and lily both refer to the purity of the Virgin Mary; the same is true of the water and rose in Francisco de Zurbarán’s A Cup of Water and a Rose. The goldfinch is often associated with Christ’s Passion and sacrifice. According to legend, the bird flew down towards Christ on the road to Calvary, the site of his crucifixion, and plucked a thorn from his brow, splashing its feathers with a drop of his blood.
The porcelain bowl, which has a distinctive repeating motif of a deer, was made in China for export and reappears in another painting attributed to Francisco de Zurbarán, suggesting that it was in his studio. An example of the bowl, salvaged from a galleon that sunk off the Philippines in 1600, is in the Museo Naval, Madrid.
Juan delights in conveying the textures of the objects on display – coarse lemon rind, delicate flower petals, the reflective surface of the silver tazza. The objects are astonishingly realistic and the curling leaves create a sense of energy and movement throughout the composition. The basket, with its regular weave, appears in two other paintings by Juan, which are also dated to the late 1640s. In each of these paintings Juan adopts strong lighting effects, and the vivid colours of the fruit and foliage contrast with the stark setting and darkness behind.
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