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Sánchez Cotán, Juan

Orgaz, Toledo, 1560 - Granada, 1627

The earliest Spanish painter with extant still lifes, most of which were painted before 1603. Baptized in his hometown’s parish church on June 25, 1560, he lived and worked in Toledo. He may have been a disciple of Blas de Prado, who was the first documented Spanish still-life painter, although none of his works in that genre have been identified. Part of Sánchez Cotán’s family lived in Orgaz (Toledo), while his brother, the sculptor Alonso Sanchez Cotán, lived in Alcázar de San Juan (Ciudad Real) with his two sons: Alonso, a sculptor and joiner, and Damián, a gilder and specialist in "estofado". The turning point in Sánchez Cotán’s life came at the age of forty-three, when he decided to leave Toledo and become a Carthusian monk. In September 1604, he took his vows as a lay brother at the charterhouse in Granada and in 1610 he resided at the charterhouse in El Paular (Segovia), where he and his nephew, Alonso Sánchez Cotán, painted an altarpiece for the parish church of San Pablo de los Montes (Toledo). Returning to the monastery in Granada, he painted a series of episodes from the history of the Carthusian order between 1615 and 1617 which remain at that charterhouse. Vicente Carducho is said to have studied them on a visit to Granada in 1626-1627 before painting his own series at El Paular. The Carthusian order not only valued Sánchez Cotán’s talent for religious painting, but also his practical aptitudes, engaging him in the convent’s maintenance. During that period of his life, his religious faith seems to have deepened, and his earliest biographers portray him as practically a saint. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to him so that he could paint her portrait. He died in the Granada charterhouse on September 8, 1627—the feast of the Virgin and the anniversary of his vows. Sánchez Cotán’s reason for joining one of the strictest religious orders is unknown, but as a result, in 1603, he wrote his will and carried out an inventory of his property. These uncommonly detailed documents shed at least some light on his artistic career and his lifestyle. They barely reflect his underlying religious convictions, suggesting only a conventional piety, but they do mention a Franciscan habit and a rosary. He had few books, but one was the second part of Alonso de Villegas’s "Flos sanctorum" (Toledo, 1548), a popular pious text and an essential reference for painters. In fact, Sánchez Cotán may even have known its author. He seems to have been quite well off, as his will makes no mention of debts, but he lent money to others quite frequently, and the same document includes detailed instructions about the distribution of his properties among his heirs. The fact that one of his debtors was El Greco indicates that they knew each other. It therefore seems that Sánchez Cotán lived comfortably in Toledo. His house was well furnished, with "guadamecíes", a French tapestry with figures, and coats of arms on the walls. He also had musical instruments—a harp and a vihuela—and a book of music, which suggests that he was a cultivated individual. A self-portrait that he had begun to paint before leaving Toledo is now lost. This 1603 inventory lists two mythological paintings with erotic subjects: a "Judgment of Paris" and a copy of Titian’s "Rape of Europe" (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), which may have been by his own hand. Sánchez Cotán enjoyed a conventional artistic career in Toledo. He accepted commissions for religious paintings for churches and also others of lesser significance, such as painting the coat of arms of the Archbishop of Toledo at a shoemaker’s house. Surprisingly, there is no mention of disciples or assistants in documentation of his career in Toledo. His inventory alludes to portraits and copies of Venetian paintings for private collectors, as well as landscapes. Of the sixty-odd paintings mentioned in that document, half were religious, eleven were portraits and only nine were still lifes. This suggests that religious easel paintings were his staple—generally pious images of the Virgin and saints, rather than narrative scenes. The ones he made in Toledo are characterized by fully formed, refined and soft figures of the sort visible in works from the El Escorial school, and they remained essentially unchanged throughout his career. Unquestionably, however, his most remarkable works were his still lifes, and this was already recognized in the 17th century (Cherry, P. in: E.M.N.P., Madrid, 2006, vol. VI, pp. 1976-1978).

Artworks (3)

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