Plate with Plums and Morello CherriesCa. 1631. Oil on canvas, 20 x 28 cm.
Juan van der Hamen y León´s output alternates between compositionally complex still lifes and works that are smaller in size and constructed more simply, such as this canvas. It depicts a pewter, possibly silver, plate holding a small pile of plums (or sloes), and cherries. As is habitual in this type of work, the plate is placed in the close foreground, sitting on the edge of a stone ledge or windowsill. Both the plate and the small pieces of fruit are illuminated by a strong external light that creates a remarkable play of shadows. The simplicity of this work recalls a series of fruit plates that were frequent subjects of representation from the beginnings of the still life in the late sixteenth century. Similarly small, intimate works can be found around the same time in Italy, by painters such as Carlantonio Procaccini (c.1555-c.1630) and Fede Galizia (1578-c.1630). In Spain -specifically in Toledo, where the genre developed in its earliest stages- the artist Blas del Prado (c.1545-99) gained fame with his images of fruits described as very well painted by painter and theoretical writer Francisco Pacheco. Throughout almost the entire seventeenth century we find plates of fruit that repeat the basic model that Van der Hamen has used here: Juan de Zurbarán (1620–49), Pedro de Camprobín (1605–74) and Juan de Arellano all executed similar pieces: very simple, direct compositions that are nonetheless marked by a conception of space and light that lends a solemn, timeless quality to the food. In his short career, Van der Hamen produced several tazzas de fruta (fruit bowls), according to the inventory of his possessions. Some of these works may have been models for elements to be incorporated into more complex compositions. Indeed, we find a plate of sloes and cherries similar to this one, though slightly more complex, in his Still life with flowers and fruit 1629 on loan from a private collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Documentation of small-scale still lifes by Van der Hamen in inventories of contemporary collectors suggests the possibility that they may have been conceived as a series. In fact, works such as this one could have served two purposes: as sketches or prototypes for specific motifs in larger still lifes and as works that could later be sold in their own right to a less wealthy clientele. The painter´s last work was a series of 12 small paintings of fruit measuring around 20 centimetres high and 27 centimetres wide, dimensions that correspond closely to this canvas. Andrés de Villarroel, silversmith to the king, owned several still lifes by Van der Hamen, some of which were small: a little silver plate with sloes and cherries and another little plate with pears and another with sweets or biscuits. The first of these could be this canvas in the Collection of the Prado (Ruiz, L.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 160).