Selma Herringman, New York, ca. 1955-2013; thence by descent to:
Private Collection, New York, 2013-2020
This seventeenth century Spanish still-life of a laden table, known as a bodegón, stands out for its dramatic lighting and for the detailed description of each object. The artist’s confident use of chiaroscuro enables the sliced-open squash in the left foreground to appear as if emerging out of the darkness and projecting towards the viewer. The light source emanates from the upper left, illuminating the array, and its strength is made apparent by the reflections on the pitcher, pot, and the fruit in the basket. Visible brush strokes accentuate the vegetables’ rough surfaces and delicate interiors. Although the painter of this striking work remains unknown, it is a characteristic example of the pioneering Spanish still-lifes of the baroque period, which brought inanimate objects alive on canvas.
In our painting, the knife and the large yellow squash boldly protrude off the table. Balancing objects on the edge of a table was a clever way for still-life painters to emphasize the three-dimensionality of the objects depicted, as well a way to lend a sense of drama to an otherwise static image. The knife here teeters on the edge, appearing as if it might fall off the table and out of the painting at any moment. The shape and consistency of the squash at left is brilliantly conveyed through the light brush strokes that define the vegetable’s fleshy and feathery interior. The smaller gourds—gathered together in a pile—are shrouded partly in darkness and stand out for their rugged, bumpy exterior. The stoneware has a brassy glaze, and the earthy tones of the vessels are carefully modulated by their interaction with the light and shadow that falls across them. The artist has cleverly arranged the still-life in a V-shaped composition, with a triangular slice of cheese standing upright, serving as its pinnacle.
Independent still-lifes only became an important pictorial genre in the first years of the seventeenth century. In Italy, and particularly through the revolutionary works of Caravaggio, painted objects became carriers of meaning, and their depiction and arrangement the province of serious artistic scrutiny. Caravaggio famously asserted that it was equally difficult to paint a still-life as it was to paint figures, and the elevation of this new art form would have profound consequences to the present day. In Spain Juan Sanchez Cotan, almost an exact contemporary of Caravaggio, inaugurated the distinctive tradition of Spanish still-life painting with memorable images of common vegetables and fruits depicted with reverence and elegance. His Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Fig. 1) both illustrates the origins of this tradition and provides a useful comparison to the present work. The objects—conventionally thought of as unremarkable, if not ugly—are depicted in painstaking detail against a dark background. They are arranged in a parabolic composition, with the quince and leafy cabbage suspended in the air on strings, while the slice of freshly cut melon and the cucumber jut out beyond the ledge. The varied shapes and textures so meticulously recorded contrast with the harsh geometrical surround of the window and the uniform black background, giving these objects a new-found importance and beauty.
The author of our painting is not known. Although there are compositional echoes of the works of such artists as Blas de Ledesma and Alejandro de Loarte, the style of our painting is not sufficiently distinctive to permit its association with any known painter. But it is clearly a work of the period, one characterized by what seems a charming naiveté in its frank and objective representation of the objects depicted.
In our painting the anonymous artist has chosen especially humble subjects. The gourds are common, and the ceramic pitcher and crock unadorned and utilitarian. The basket, fruit, and cheese are those of the laborer, not the prince. These are not the luxury possessions one will find in Dutch still-lifes later in the century, included to reflect the wealth and sophistication of their owners. Rather here, with the depiction of modest objects on a bare table, the artist extols both the significance and beauty of the everyday, as he subtly celebrates the humility of their owner.