The exhibition is organised into 2 sections that reveal the evolution of the artist’s compositions, from his earliest works that solely depict bunches of grapes to his late paintings in which they are combined with other elements.
A modern Zeuxis
Bunches of grapes have been a favoured motif in still-life paintings since the genre was invented in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. By depicting them artists could demonstrate their skills, capturing textures, structure and the stage of ripeness of the fruit. However, for an erudite public they also evoked a classical episode that upheld the superiority of painting. According to classical texts, in the 5th century BC the Greek painter Zeuxis of Heraclea depicted grapes with such realism that some birds came down to peck at them in one of his paintings of this subject.
In his earliest known works El Labrador only depicted grapes, which are presented in a striking manner. The minutely detailed bunches are seemingly suspended in darkness and lit with extremely contrasting light while all spatial references are eliminated. The grapes’ realistic, instantaneous appearance challenged viewers of the day and revealed the artist’s remarkable imitative powers, which were sufficient for him to be termed a modern Zeuxis.
Nature on the canvas: spring and autumn
From 1633 El Labrador began to paint more complex compositions in which his distinctive grapes are combined with other elements. These still lifes always include fruit and plants that ripen in autumn or keep well over the following months. Generally products of the summer and autumn, they are depicted alongside bunches of grapes on small ledges that are seen from the front and stand out against the shadowy backgrounds. An apparent disorder prevails in these works, in which the artist generally added a refined vessel or recipient made of a gleaming or coloured material that creates a subtle contrast with the simplicity of acorns or chestnuts. These works can be seen as celebrations of autumn in which the variety of fruit implies a display of humble abundance. In 1635, and perhaps on the suggestion of one of his English clients, El Labrador expanded his range of subjects to depict bouquets of flowers. These brought him fame due to their freshness and sense of realism and he added new, spring-like colours to his palette.