Spanish Painting – Cano And Zurbaran

ALONZO CANO was born in Granada in 1601. He belongs, however, to the School of Andalusia, for he studied in Seville and lived there until his thirty-sixth year. His teachers in painting were Juan de Castillo, the master a few years later of Murillo, and Francisco Pacheco, in whose studio Cano was a fellow-pupil of Velasquez. He also practised architecture and sculpture. Indeed, it was in the latter art that he particularly excelled and gained his first distinction. His teacher had been the celebrated Martinez Montanes, whose instruction was supplemented by the opportunities of studying the antique marbles collected by the Dukes of Alcala, in their palace in Seville, the Casa de Pilatos. The influence of this training is perceptible in his best paintings which are characterised by excessive refinement of drawing and expression. Yet Cano’s own nature was inclined to violence and lawlessness. Having fought a duel with the painter, Llano y Valdes, and wounded him, he found it convenient to leave Seville and settle in Madrid.

Cano, now in his thirty-sixth year, was kindly received by Velasquez and introduced by him to the Count-Duke Olivares, who employed him in his palace of Buen Retiro. Philip IV expressed a wish to see the newcomer’s work and, being favorably impressed with it, gave Cano the appointment of drawing-master to the young Prince Baltasar Carlos, and later made him one of his own painters in ordinary. After some seven years of success Cano’s stay in Madrid was terminated as abruptly as his sojourn in Seville. His wife was murdered. According to the artist’s own account, he had returned home to find her dead in bed, clutching a lock of hair and pierced with many wounds, inflicted, apparently, with a pocket-knife. Her jewels were missing and the Italian servant had disappeared. Suspicion was at first directed against this man; but when it became known that the artist had lived on bad terms with his wife, while carrying on an intrigue with an-other woman, he himself was suspected of the crime. Whether guilty or not, Cano was alarmed for his safety and, giving out that he had left for Portugal, fled East to Valencia. Here he took refuge in a monastery, executing works for many of the neighbouring communities. At length, trusting that the affair had blown over, he returned to Madrid and sought asylum in the house of his friend, the Regidor, Don Rafael Sanguineto. He was, however, arrested and condemned to the ordeal. Pleading his profession as a painter, he was permitted to submit his left hand to the torture and, passing through it without a cry, was adjudged innocent.

Six years later Cano, desiring to settle in his native city, Granada, obtained through the King’s influence the post of minor-canon in the Cathedral, with the proviso that he should be excused from his choral duties if he took orders within a year. He endeavored to conciliate the very natural objections of the Chapter by executing some sculptural embellishments for the Coro. He also worked for the convents of the neighborhood and for private patrons, with one of whom he came into collision respecting the price to be paid for a statue of S. Antony. The man, who held the office of auditor of Granada, had demurred at the sum asked for a work which had occupied the artist only twenty-five days; whereupon Cano, anticipating Whistler, retorted, “You are a bad reckoner; I have been fifty years learning to make such a statue in twenty-five days.” Then he dashed the S. Antony to the ground and smashed him. This was a sacrilegious offence that might have brought the artist under the jurisdiction of the Holy Office, but the auditor, instead of reporting the matter to that body prevailed on the Chapter to declare Cano’s seat vacant because he had not according to agreement taken orders. Cano appealed to the King who obtained for him from the Bishop of Salamanca a chaplaincy which entitled the holder to full orders, while at the same time the Nuncio consented to grant him dispensation from saying Mass. So Cano returned in triumph to Granada, but never again would execute any work for the Cathedral. Indeed, it was in works of charity that the last years of his life were chiefly spent. He was so impoverished by them that, when he was stricken with his last sickness, the Chapter voted five hundred reals to “The Canon Cano, being sick and very poor and without means to pay the doctor” ; and a week later added another two hundred reals to buy him “poultry and sweetmeats.” He died on the third of October, 1667.

The Capilla Mayor in the Cathedral of Granada is enriched with sculptural works by Cano’s hand and with some paintings. These represent the “Seven Joys of Mary,” Annunciation, Conception, Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, and Assumption. They are placed so high, that from the floor it is very difficult to see them, while, even when you view them from the nearer approach of the triforium, the colored glass of the windows interferes with their effect. As far as one can judge on the spot and with the aid of photographs they are too flimsy in character for the monumental structure which they are intended to decorate. That this conclusion is correct appears probable when you study Cano’s smaller altar-pieces. Some of them are painted so thinly, with so little variety of values of hue and so little interest of surface, that they seem to be empty. On the other hand, his best works, such as the Mother and Child over the Altar of Bethlehem in Seville Cathedral, and the S. Agnes of the Berlin Gallery, are so exquisitely refined that they need to be seen at close range.

The former is regarded as Cano’s masterpiece. The type of the Virgin is of Granada, touched with Moorish warmth, a little more womanly and much more refined than Murillo’s. But, like the latter’s and like Raphael’s Roman Madonnas, it is beautiful only in a physical and emotional way; it has nothing of the spirituality of El Greco’s creations, so absorbed in the mystery of their sacred and miraculous estate. Yet among the Madonnas of the Southern artists there is probably none so pure in its loveliness and so lovely in its purity as this one of Cano’s. A similar quality of exquisitely fragrant maidenhood appears in the S. Agnes. Both this and the other canvas represent sentiment, raised to the highest pitch of elevated feeling; yet remaining sentiment. I make the point because Cano, no more than the other Spanish artists, for all the religiosity of their pictures, touched the soul of religion. The only artist of the Spanish School to do this was the alien, El Greco.

Francisco de Zurbaran was born in 1698 in the little town of Fuente de Cantos in the province of Estremadura. His father, a small farmer, convinced of his son’s talent for drawing, took him to Seville and placed him under the teaching of Roelas. But there is little or no trace of this painter’s influence in Zurbaran’s style. In a general way the latter came under the spell of Ribera and Caravaggio; indeed, at one period of his career Zurbaran in consequence of his dark shadows was nicknamed “the Spanish Caravaggio.” But you cannot become acquainted with Zurbaran’s various subjects without realising that he owed his style chiefly, almost entirely, to himself ; that he had shaped it to the needs of his own temperament. He was an, out and out naturalist ; in a sense the most conspicuously naturalistic painter of the Spanish School. For there is an austerity in his point of view, which separates him from the sentiment of Murillo, the passionate virility of Ribera and the aristocratic distinction of Velasquez.

Zurbaran consorted with Monks; took advantage of occasional opportunities of retiring from the world into the quiet of a monastic community ; and in the simplicity and frugality of his tastes was at heart a monk. The bare walls of a cell or refectory, the plain habits of the brethren, and the orderly formality of their lives, were more to him than subjects for his brush. They were so in tune with his own instincts, that he derived from them inspiration for his art; affecting not only his habit of seeing but his technique. Both became characterised by largeness and simplicity and by more or less severity.

These qualities are represented in the great altar-piece, The Apotheosis of S. Thomas Aquinas, executed when Zurbaran was only twenty-seven years old and generally considered his masterpiece. It is to be seen to-day under very favorable conditions in the Provincial Museum of Seville, for it is hung high in a good light and can be viewed from various distances. These advantages of placing no doubt count in the impression, differing so widely from the usual circumstances under which the altar-pieces of Spain are to be studied. But the impression received of the S. Thomas is that, with the exception of the Funeral of Count Orgaz, it is the noblest ceremonial picture that one has met in Spain. It is due to the magnificence of its organic simplicity and bigness, which give the composition an emphasis and carrying force. And what is true of the large masses, viewed from a distance, is equally true on a nearer view of the details. The latter resolve them-selves into finely treated surfaces of drapery and particularly into the punctuating emphasis of keenly characterised heads. The altar-piece was painted for the Church of the College of S. Thomas; whose founder, Archbishop Diego de Deza is represented below; kneeling opposite to the Emperor Charles V, who presumably had been a patron of the foundation. One has but to look at the reproduction of this picture (p. 163) to feel sure that all the heads are portraits; that of S. Thomas, “The Angelic Doctor,” being, tradition says, a portrait of the Prebendary of Seville in Zurbaran’s time. While each head is individualized, it is interesting to note how they are assembled into generic groups; the monkish type represented in the archbishop and his attendants; the man-of-the-world in the Emperor’s group ; the type of the thinker and spiritual leader in the four doctors of the Church, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome. Nor is there any less distinction of character in the S. Paul and S. Dominic, in the right upper corner. It is less manifest, however, in the Christ, and scarcely to be found in the figure of the Virgin. Two other points may be noted, as helping to explain the magistral impression of this canvas. In the first place, the effect of wide-openness in the upper part of the composition, where the clouds of glory are thronged with cherub heads, is carried down into the lower part by the view of the street, seen at a distance and dotted with intentionally minute figures, so as not to interfere with the emphasis of the groups in the fore-ground. The result of this continuance of lighted space is to create a unity in the composition, binding into an ensemble the three tiers of figures. Again, it is remarkable with what a comprehension of large, struttural principles, Zurbaran has distributed the masses, respectively, of the plain and of the embellished draperies. The purpose of the whole pageant is to glorify S. Thomas and incidentally the Dominican order. The key and climax, therefore, of the whole is S. Thomas’s black and white habit. To secure its emphasis the cardinal’s red and the rich copes with their sumptuously embroidered orphreys have been massed about it. Meanwhile a portion of this enrichment is repeated below in the archbishop’s robes and the emperor’s cloak, and more faintly in the figures in the clouds. Here too S. Dominic supplies an echo of the black and white, which in turn are massed in the lower foreground. It is this fine ground-work, distribution and climax of black and white, which more than any-thing give this composition so noble a distinction: a certain chaste, choice, austere dignity.

Near this picture in the Provincial Museum of Seville hangs another fine example of Zurbaran’s originality of composition; The Virgin Blessing Various Monks. The white-flocked brothers are kneeling in two groups, left and right of the central figure of the Virgin. She stands robed in delicate rose, with her arms extended, each hand on the head of a monk. Meanwhile her blue mantle, fastened at the throat with a magnificent jewel, is held suspended by two cherubs, so that its volume forms a canopy of protection over the kneeling groups, and the upper part, curving like a bowl, is filled high with angel heads floating in divine glory. Here again is architectonic simplicity, allied with grandeur, in the distribution of the masses of white, rose, deep blue and golden yellow, and again an extraordinary interest of characterization.

The quality of intense, austere sincerity is represented also in Miracle of S. Hugo (p. 166) which is in the same Museum. Indeed, it is in Seville that you realise the nobility of Zurbaran’s art. The examples in the Prado are by comparison commonplace; except the Portrait of a Lady in one of the upper galleries. This introduces us to the character of the artist’s work after he settled in Madrid, whither he was sent for by the king. Portraits of women of fashion now occupied him. There is a good example in the Metropolitan Museum which, in pose and style of costume and low toned harmony, resembles the one in the Prado. In the latter, however, the silk fall of the drapery is drawn forward over the skirt by the lady’s hand, so that its folds are more voluminous, and the whole figure, in consequence, is freer in design than the one in New York. As for the other picture in the Metropolitan Museum, S. Michael the Archangel, it is very hard to credit its attribution to Zurbaran. Where else among the artist’s works can you find so palpable an attempt to imitate Raphael? It has nothing of the originality, breadth and determined naturalism that distinguish Zurbaran. If the latter really painted it, he must have done so in his student days with Roelas.

Zurbaran died in Madrid, probably in 1662. He is held in high estimation by the Spanish, but scarcely appreciated at his true worth by foreigners. To see him at his best, alongside of Murillo’s work, as you can in Seville, is to be disposed to question the latter’s claim to be considered the greatest artist of the Sevillian School. Certainly, as compared with Murillo, Zurbaran was more unequivocally the naturalist; he was at least as good a painter; a better, one may even think; and the qualities of his mind were superior. He had not the popular trait of sentiment and passion ; but the higher gift of intellectuality and the rarer one of cold, dispassionate vision.