Baroque Still Life

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit c. 1597 
Oil on canvas, 46 x 64 cm Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

Juan Cotan, Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, c. 1602
trompe l'oeil

Excerpted from, 
Food for thought. by Robert Hughes. Time, 5/22/95, Vol. 145 Issue 21, following p70, 2p, 3c


"Tell me what you eat," said the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, "and I will tell you who you are." This is strikingly true of the way still life-the depiction of inanimate things, mainly food, drink and the vessels used to serve them-developed in Spain from the 16th century on. You might almost say that independent still life, painting that had no other purpose than to confront us with objects for their own sake, was a Hispanic reinvention. It was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans but then lost, and it did not come back in force until the end of the 16th century in northern Italy, Holland and Spain, all of which were under the sway of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty. 

Still life is to eating what the nude is to sex, not a simple image but a complicated knot of cultural ideas about materialism and transcendence, illusion and reality, pleasure and denial, life and death. . .

It begins with one extraordinary icon-an odd word for a painting of a cabbage, a quince, a cut melon and a cucumber, but no other will quite do. It is by Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627), a painter from Toledo who is known by only a few works, all of which are remarkable for their careful, precise, yet unpedantic construction. This is one of the finest. No still life was ever so still. The black space behind the framing window looks infinitely deep; two of the objects (the slice of melon and the yellow tip of the cucumber) stick out a little into our space. Everything is painted with self-abnegating care, warts and all, becoming a tiny sample of the world as a marvel: not through weirdness or preciousness (as in the curio cabinets of the great) but through its ordinary, even blemished, but always singular character. 

Cotan's work oscillates between desire and denial. Its fruit and fish and vegetables are more sacramental than gastronomic, emblems of the variety of God's creation (one of Cotan's still lifes contains a chayote from Mexico, an exotic rarity in 16th century Spain). Your eye can't wallow in such spareness, as it can in the abundance of Flemish still life. It sees the vegetable as Idea, a reading promoted by the fact that Cotan deliberately arranged the objects on strings and shelf to form a hyperbolic curve. The melon opens its delicious interior to you, but its geometric frame cancels the idea of eating it. It's food for thought. . .

Seventeenth century Spain was notorious for the parsimony of its common diet: bread, beans, onions, a scrap of lamb or fish sometimes, and garlic, garlic, garlic. It was to French or Italian cooking what the crabby-looking servant girl grinding aioli in Diego Velazquez's Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary was to the sumptuous nudes of Titian or Veronese. A modern palate would recoil at the eggs slowly frying, or rather poaching, in oil on top of a clay stove in Velazquez's An Old Woman Cooking Eggs. But what an amazing act of skill the picture itself is, done in 1618 by a 19-year-old boy who wanted to display his total control over surface texture, form and light, from the transparency of the oil in which the eggs swim to the knife's curved shadow on a bowl to the marvelous fugue of circles and ellipses, melon and cooking vessels, that fills the lower third of the canvas. 

The binding metaphor of 17th century still life was the vanitas, a term deriving from the text in Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." Such images were meant to show the fleeting nature of the world's goods, honors and sensual pleasures, setting them against the terrible perspective of death, time and judgment. They exemplified the desengauo del mundo, "disillusionment of the world," that was one of the chief tropes of Spanish Baroque art and literature. They could be small and simple-three moldy skulls and a pocket watch-or fulsome in their cascade of lessons.