Octagonal Still Life with Bunches of Grapes1646. Oil on canvas, 67 x 68 cm.
The octagonal format of this painting makes it unique among still lifes in seventeenth-century Spain (and, indeed, the rest of Europe), in which rectangular supports predominated. This peculiarity has important consequences in terms of the compositional organisation of the piece and accentuates the work´s status as a witty game and an occasion to display the artist´s technical abilities. The objects in this still life come principally from the plant kingdom. Some are spread out on a stone surface, arranged in two levels, while others are hanging from strings above, two devices that were common in still lifes from Toledo and Madrid in the first decades of the seventeenth century, following the examples of Juan Sánchez Cotán and Juan van der Hamen y León. The work of the latter painter is Juan de Espinosa´s point of departure: his octagonal painting is at once a meditation on Van der Hamen´s models and a step towards greater variety among the objects depicted and an emphasis on vegetal motifs, particularly fruit. Distributed over the stone surface are two pears, a dead bird, walnuts, hazelnuts, a pomegranate, a bunch of grapes, two apples and an earthenware vase. Above them hang several bunches of grapes mixed with acorns. The presence of the little bird and the vase in this scene in which edible plants predominate is important from a compositional standpoint and also in terms of the painting´s meaning. Compositionally, these two elements represent each in their own way, variations of colour, texture, and volume, situated on either extreme of the composition. The painter has also utilised these objects in an interesting play of contrasts and similarities that predominates in the lower portion of the painting. Thus, in the same way that the cracked walnut is juxtaposed with the split pomegranate on the left-hand side of the painting, on the right Espinosa has focused on the homogenous surface of the vase, its geometric form and uniformly ruddy tone, as a counterpoint to the varied colours and irregular volumes of the apples, whose shape also tends toward the spherical. The particular type of vase here, called a búcaro in Spanish, was fashioned out of red clay from Estremoz in Portugal or from Mexico. It is one of the most commonly represented manufactured objects in Espinosa´s still lifes, and búcaros were typically objects of fancy -highly esteemed curios destined for display in side rooms. On the left-hand side of the composition we observe a small step or pedestal that holds a curious combination of elements: two pears and a dead bird, below which is the artist´s signature and the date of the painting. Finding the painter´s signature on a Spanish still life is unremarkable and reflects artists´ self-conscious acknowledgement of the creative process as much as their desire to promote themselves professionally. The combination in this case of fruits, a dead bird and the artist´s signature, however, may very well be related (as Peter Cherry has suggested) to the story of the classical Greek painter Zeuxis, which would have been familiar to any relatively educated person in Spain´s Golden Age. According to the ancient legend, this painter´s mastery of his craft was such that his images of grapes led birds to dive at them, tricked into thinking they were real. Thus, though starting from his familiarity with the local tradition, Espinosa was able to create a highly original work of art, not only because of its unusual octagonal format, but in particular because of the relationships he established between the diverse elements of the painting. The painting´s assemblage of fruits, a dead bird and an earthenware vase, constitute the basis for Espinosa´s construction of one of the most monumental compositions of Spanish painting in his time. The work demonstrates that the stilllife genre requires not only the painter´s talents in imitating life but also an extraordinary skill in composing and arranging the diverse elements, as well as the ability to think in terms of volume and space (Portús, J.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 162).