First published in 1997, and soon after described as 'without any doubt whatsoever, one of the finest works to have been painted by Juan de Zurbarán' (A.E. Prez Snchez, Zurbarán, Al Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, loc. cit), this grand and monumental still-life was executed by one of the most creative, gifted -- but short-lived -- painters of the genre anywhere in Spain.
Juan de Zurbarán's oeuvre was rediscovered only in 1938, when a still-life in the Khanenko Museum of Western and Oriental Art in Kiev, previously considered a work of his father and teacher Francisco, was cleaned to reveal Juan's signature and the date 1640 (W. Jordan and P. Cherry, Spanish Still Life from Velázquez to Goya, exhibition catalogue, London, 1995, p. 107, no. 41; fig. 1). Since then a small oeuvre has been reconstructed. Francisco himself painted very few still-lifes, the only remaining signed one being the great masterpiece of 1633 in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena (ibid., p. 102, fig. 74; see fig. 2), and the reputation of that picture alone was such that in the early decades of the twentieth century many other still-lifes were incorrectly attributed to him. Although Juan was commissioned in 1644 by the Confraternity of the Rosary at Carmona near Seville to paint two large religious canvases (196 x 280 cm.) of Miracles of the Virgin of the Rosary, none of his figurative work is known today and unlike his father -- and no doubt inspired by the latter's peerless example -- he was to concentrate on still-life throughout his career.
Juan's earliest known work -- the first of only three that are signed -- is the Plate of Grapes (28 x 36 cm.), executed on copper and signed and dated 1639 (Bordeaux, private collection; ibid., p. 106, no. 39; see fig. 3). Quite northern in feel, as Cherry and Jordan point out, it also seems close in its preciosity to such Lombard artists as Panfilo Nuvolone (active 1581-1631). The attention to detail and extraordinary quality in execution were to become characteristic of his work, and are so evident in the reflection of the grapes on the flange of the silver plate: an effect that is repeated in the present canvas with the plate of pomegranates on the left side. His last dated work is the Basket of Fruit and Cardoon of 1643 in the Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation, Mänttä, Finland (ibid., p. 108, fig. 80; see fig. 4). Strongly influenced by the tenebristic qualities of contemporary Neapolitan still-lifes that by this time were beginning to reach Spain, that work shows the same sense of earthiness in the painted textures and dramatic Caravaggesque lighting that became hallmarks of Juan's oeuvre and are fundamental to our picture. In this present painting, the artist created strong contrasts of light and shade, picking out the different levels of the stone ledge, emphasizing the solidity of the fruit and objects depicted and imbuing the overall image with a powerful presence and sense of permanence. The same light plays across the picture and highlights all the different surface textures: the stone of the ledge, the weave of the basket, the skin and seeds of the luscious, opened pomegranates on their silver plate and the soft, delicate petals and leaves of the bouquet of flowers placed in an elegant glass vase half-filled with water. It throws up more transitory qualities: the slight bruising on the apples, the reflections in the glass vase and on the silver plate -- all typical of the young artist's unerring observation of accidental detail. The inclusion of flowers is itself rare in Juan's pictures. A Still-Life of Pears in a Porcelain Bowl in the Art Institute of Chicago (P. Cherry, Arte y Naturaleza, El Bodegón Español en el Siglo de Oro, Aranjuez, 1999, pl. 83) includes sprigs of flowers delicately scattered around the composition, but the present picture seems to be the only one in the artist's oeuvre to feature a bouquet in a vase.
Datable to circa 1643-9, in terms of composition alone this picture must surely rank as Juan de Zurbarán's grandest work. The inclusion of a central dominating basket of fruit can be compared to the Still Life with Basket of Apples and Quinces in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, re-ascribed to the artist by Jordan in his 1985 Fort Worth exhibition (op. cit., p. 234) or that in the Masaveu Collection, where exactly the same type of basket is depicted as in the present work (fig. 5). It was a feature often used by and possibly taken (perhaps on trips to Madrid with his father), from the slightly older Madrid painter of still-life, Juan van der Hamen y León (1596-1631). From Van der Hamen, Juan de Zurbarán may also have taken the exciting compositional device of placing elements on ledges set at different levels, which is highly unusual in Zurbarán's work but is here used to such powerful effect (see, for example, Juan van der Hamen's Still-Life with Flowers and Fruit of 1629; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; fig. 6). At the same time, although monumental, his work is never overbearing, and, avoiding the often rather crowded compositions of the Neapolitan School, an extraordinary effort is always made to ensure that his compositions retain elegance and equilibrium. The placement of the single apple on its own at the front of the bottom ledge of the present picture, with its leaves beautifully twisting down over the side, the foremost leaf's tip just catching the light, is every bit as fundamental to the success of this composition as the other, larger elements.
Juan de Zurbarán appears to have been a cultivated, stylish and ambitious man. He attached the genteel 'Don' when signing his name and in 1641 made a spectacular marriage to Mariana de Quadros, the daughter of a lawyer in the Real Audiencia of Seville, which brought him a dowry worth 50,000 reales, one of the most advantageous marriage settlements of any Sevillian painter of his generation. He had, however, spent most of this within the decade. His life was cut short at the early age of 29 by the bubonic plague, which was to kill nearly half of Seville in 1649. The consequently small oeuvre that has been rediscovered reveals him to be 'among the most skilled and innovative still-life painters of the century' (Cherry, op. cit., 1999, p. 130) and this canvas is indisputably among his most impressive.
This picture belonged to Denys Sutton (1917-1991), the distinguished collector, art magazine editor and exhibition organiser. Appointed as editor of Apollo Magazine in 1962, where he was to remain for a quarter of a century, he succeeded in giving that long-established magazine a new role as an elegant and serious counterpart to the Burlington Magazine, edited at the time by Benedict Nicolson. Sutton published widely, writing on twentieth-century artists, including his friend Nicolas de Stael, and the eighteenth century, particularly France. He curated exhibitions at Lefevre Galleries, Whitechapel Art Gallery and seventeen at Wildenstein. However, the most ambitious was undoubtedly the landmark France in the Eighteenth Century, held at the London Royal Academy in 1968.
Sutton died in 1971 and had managed to build a notable collection of art that represented his broad but discerning taste. Some of this was sold by Christie's in 1997 (the present lot), and 2005 including work by important early Florentine artists such as Agnolo Gaddi, Francesco di Giotto di Bondone and Filippino Lippi, as well as watercolours by Cozens and pictures by Walter Sickert, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Oskar Kokoschka and Nicolas de Stael.