Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables1625. Oil on canvas, 56 x 110 cm.
Juan van der Hamen y León attained notable fame as a painter of still lifes in the court in Madrid. His early death in 1631 explains the concentration of his works from the 1620s, a brief period that nevertheless offers an interesting evolution in the typologies of his paintings, suggesting that he was open to incorporating aspects of other artists´ work. Still life with fruits and vegetables presents a composition derived from the model created by Juan Sánchez Cotán around 1600 in Toledo. Van der Hamen regularly imitated Sánchez Cotán in his early years, but for him to do this in 1625 seems somewhat backward-looking. This was a year in which the Hispano-Flemish artist produced comparatively few still lifes, devoting most of his time, instead, to portraits and religious paintings. The tenebrism of this arrangement, the attention to the minutest detail, the monumental symmetry and the sense of space are aspects of the work that place it within the austere essentialist tradition in which Sánchez Cotán and, later, Francisco de Zurbarán are habitually counted. These artists were responsible for the kind of still lifes that Mercedes Replinger describes as enigmatic and introspective. Their work is considered the paragon of the still-life genre in Spain. The humbleness of the objects represented -a simple wicker basket overflowing with apricots and branches full of plums, flanked on one side by a squash and on the other by cucumbers and aubergines- is unusual in the still lifes of Van der Hamen. More typically, he produced images of sweets and the vessels used to serve and store them. These were painted for an affluent clientele that enjoyed refined still lifes filled with elegant objects and enticing foodstuffs. This work originally hung in a Spanish monastery, the property of which was sold during the confiscations of ecclesiastical property initiated by government minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal in 1835; its paintings went to the former Museum of the Trinity (Museo de la Trinidad). The provenance of this work explains the humble subject matter, which may have served as a reminder of some of the produce from the garden of the monastery for which it was painted. We know of other images of frugal subjects painted by Van der Hamen, yet none of them are as measured and at the same time as powerful compositionally as this painting, nor are the objects depicted in them as simple or presented as monumentally. Here, the brushwork is vibrant, the colour palette is restrained and elegant and the arrangement is bathed in a golden light. Van der Hamen plays with the convex shapes of the basket, fruits and vegetables, subtly emphasising their rounded forms by the lighting and the space they occupy. The overflowing basket appears to project past the edge of the windowsill or larder and be at risk of overbalancing. It is believed that the painting was originally intended to be hung over a door, in which case the pictorial illusion of the basket´s precarious position would underline the very idea of reality versus representation (Ruiz, L.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 158).