Only a poor artist could make an extraordinary subject seem woefully ordinary- could, for instance, make a prosaic illustration for an epic poem, or paint a scene from the Bible as dull and dreary as the worst of sermons. By way of extension of this idea, only a great artist on the other hand could make an ordinary subject seem extraordinary: could thus inspire the most everyday objects, a pipe on a mantelpiece, a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers, bottles, chairs, or shoes, with a life and energy that makes them, though normally boring and familiar, interesting to look at. It is this achievement, transforming the prosiest objects into the most poetic, that distinguishes the greatest of the still-life painters, one of whom is Juan Sánchez Cotán.
He was born in 1560, in the age of the greatest of Spanish masters- El Greco, Zurbarán, Ribera, Murillo, Velázquez. From his youth he made paintings of a variety of subjects, of varying quality, and for a time concentrated largely on religious themes. Nowadays, however, it is for his few still-life paintings that he is most esteemed and loved.
In these Cotán arranges his objects- mostly fruits and vegetables- against a plain black background which makes the vegetables’ forms, contrasting against the black, seem fuller, and their colours more lucid and striking. The heavy, monumental stillness of his apples, lemons, cucumbers, is counterweighted by the overall dynamism of his compositions. His objects, shimmering with colour, swirl and sprawl across the canvas in graceful shapes that might remind a modern eye of the best of abstract art. Each of his objects is rendered sharply, with such loving, painstaking and convincing detail that we feel as if we can hear the rustle of the leaves on his cabbages, or taste the juice on his lemons.
The best of still-life painting, arguably, is made in a spirit that could be called religious: a spirit of innocent wonderment at the simple things of the world, awe at the plenitude of nature’s creations. The still lifes of Cotán, a religious man who ordained in later life as a Carthusian, are invested deeply with this spirit. When seeing such paintings as his we seem to open our eyes, as never before and as if for the first time, to the wonder of the simple products of the earth: the shimmering skin of an apple, the damp softness of a leaf. Though during his career he painted religious scenes besides still lifes, his still lifes are, I feel, of all his works the most religious.