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Famous Painters: Juan Sanchez Cotan

Posted by Susan Benford

It's remarkable that one of the most famous painters of the Spanish Golden Age has only six existing works after shaping Spanish still life painting for nearly a century.

Introducing Juan Sanchez Cotan.

Near the end of the 16th century, still life painting emerged as a specific genre at nearly the same time in Spain, theJuan Sanchez Cotan still life with game vegetables fruitjpg resized 600

Juan Sanchez Cotan. Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, 1602.  Oil on canvas, approximately 27" by 35".  Prado, Madrid.

Netherlands and Northern Italy.  Three factors were behind this simultaneity:

  1. the Baroque taste for naturalistic portrayal of nature; 
  2. the growing affluence of the bourgeois, who sought art with new subject matter; and
  3. the revived interest in ancient erudition and efforts to surpass the creations of Zeuxis, an ancient Greek painter who allegedly portrayed grapes so realistically that birds pecked his canvases. 

The first known painter of Spanish still lifes was Blas de Prado, although none of his works survives.  It is believed he instructed Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627), who is the first Spanish still life painter with existing works. 

The earliest of these Cotan paintings – and likely the earliest known Spanish still life, or bodegon - is Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit. It exemplifies the mastery that Juan Sanchez Cotan brought to the genre: everyday objects are instilled with a dignity that monumentalizes them.

In Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, everyday objects are arranged in different planes protruding from the pictorial space.  On the far right is a cardoon, a thistle-like relative of the artichoke.  juan sanchez cotan still life with thistle resized 600

Juan Sanchez Cotan.  Still Life with Thistle, 1602.  Oil on canvas, approximately 24" by 32".  Granada Museum of Fine Arts, Granada.

Its dominant curves soften the composition’s rigid right angles and geometry. Intense lighting from the side creates volumes and shadows with tenebrism contemporaneous to Caravaggio’s.  

That same year, Cotan created Still Life with Thistle, which shares similarities with Still Life with Game.  He again features a cardoon or thistle; the pictorial plane is parallel to the viewer; and volume is again accentuated by the contrast between the vegetables and the near black background. 

But Still Life with Thistle is a far simpler composition in which the typical focus point - the center - is nothing but blackness.  As with all still lifes, the objective is realism -- and Cotan achieves it masterfully.

The best known Juan Sanchez Cotan painting is his Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber.  Here the irregularly rounded vegetables and fruits are juxtaposed against the geometry of a cupboard, which often had foods juan sanchez cotan still life quince cabbage melon cucumber resized 600

Juan Sanchez Cotan.  Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, c. 1602.  Oil on canvas, 27 1/8" by 33 1/4".  San Diego Museum of Art.

suspended from string to prevent rot.  A strong arc bending from the upper left to lower right corner draws the eye into this trompe l'oeil rendering. 

For nearly all of the 17th century, Spanish still life painting followed Juan Sanchez Cotan's model of a brilliant light source illuminating objects against a solid, dark background Although Sanchez Cotan enjoyed some success as a painter - it's known that he loaned a substantial amount to his friend, El Greco - Spanish still life paintings weren't highly sought after until the mid 20th century. Until then, the Spanish court preferred still lifes from the Netherlands as decorations for their courts. 

Shortly after completing Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, Sanchez Cotan renounced his earthly possessions, abandoned his studio (including this painting) and joined
cotanthe Carthusian monks. Some viewers see religious overtones in Cotan's paintings, claiming that he through his realism he strove to demonstrate the brilliance of God's creations; others see these works simply as phenomenal still lifes. 

In either case, it is inarguable that Sanchez Cotan rightfully belongs in the ranks of famous painters for his enduring contributions to Spanish still life painting.

Question: How and why do Juan Sanchez Cotan paintings feel timeless over 400 years after their creation?

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