Still Life with Grapes, Apples, Nuts and Terracotta Jar, Juan Fernández el Labrador. Oil on canvas, 62,5 x 46,5 cm, c.1633, Private Collection

The documentation on Juan Fernández located to date only refers to the first seven years of the 1630s. The artist was known as “El Labrador” [the agricultural labourer] due to his rural origins and while it is assumed that he was born in Extremadura, nothing is known of his birth or artistic training. He was brought up by a leading Italian aristocrat, Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, who had an important influence on artistic matters in the reigns of Philip III and Philip IV. Crescenzi was one of the promoters of the still life and it seems very likely that he encouraged El Labrador to devote himself to painting fruit. This genre was evolving rapidly and was greatly in demand at the Madrid court and throughout Europe. The humble appearance of El Labrador’s paintings, which are both extremely simple and astonishingly realistic, must have cause a great impact at a time when such works were becoming more complex and Baroque.

Around 1633 Juan Fernández left Madrid. According to his early biographers he retired to the country where he devoted himself to “portraying” the fruits of the natural world, with which he would have been notably familiar. It is said that he came to court during Easter Week to sell his paintings, which were acquired by the most important aristocratic collectors. Among the artist’s clients was the British Ambassador, Sir Arthur Hopton, who sent works by El Labrador to Charles I. Another royal collector to own a painting was Anne of Austria, Queen of France. As a result, El Labrador was one of the few Spanish artists known outside the Iberian Peninsula in the 17th century.

El Labrador’s fame was based on his highly individual approach to the depiction of fruit and flowers, particularly grapes, which were the principal motif in his paintings. In his still lifes he reveals a distinctive combination of the naturalist tradition with startling compositional formats. His use of painstaking detail is heightened by the extremely contrasting lighting derived from Caravaggio and a very close-up viewpoint. The dark backgrounds and absence of spatial references make these works completely timeless, particularly his depictions of hanging bunches of grapes, which convey an aesthetic close to modern art. While the artist can be related to the evolution of the genre in the first half of the 17th century, his work also implies a unique contribution for its time.

El Labrador’s enigmatic personality and the fact that he moved away from the court at the height of his artistic powers, focusing on a new naturalism that went against the prevailing trend of the time, is even more striking given the very small number of works known by his hand. While there are early references to other paintings by him, at the present time only thirteen can be securely attributed.

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