Last seen at auction nearly half a century ago, Still life with flowers and fruit is one of Juan van der Hamen y León’s largest still lifes and is universally regarded as one of his masterpieces. For many years, it has been exhibited as a highlight of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European Painting galleries and is one of the most important Spanish still lifes remaining in private hands. Following the format that van der Hamen developed in the mid-1620s, Still life with flowers and fruit presents an assortment of luxurious objects arranged in three planes. The principal ledge of the painting is the longest of any of van der Hamen’s stepped still life compositions. From left to right, the artist has portrayed a bouquet of tulips, blue and yellow irises, roses, and other flowers in a Venetian crystal vase, a pewter plate of figs, and a basket of peaches, pears and plums. On the lower ledge van der Hamen painted two terracotta vases, a pewter plate of cherries and plums, a black glass bottle and scattered stone fruit. Finally, perched on the uppermost shelf – the narrowest of any of his stepped compositions – is a basket of green pea pods and cherries. Taken as a whole, van der Hamen’s still life exhibits the brilliant clarity of execution, purity of design and refined description of surface detail that are the hallmarks of his style, uncommon qualities that led the art historian William B. Jordan to proclaim the artist to be 'one of the most original and sophisticated still-life painters of his age' (W.B. Jordan, Spanish Still Life in the Golden Age 1600-1650, op. cit., p. 142).
The Shickman van der Hamen is nearly identical in size and scale to that of the Still life with fruit and glassware in the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA (fig. 1). This latter painting is similarly signed and dated 1629, suggesting that the two paintings originally formed part of a series. In both, van der Hamen lowered the plinth in the foreground relative to those seen in his earlier compositions, thereby opening up the pictorial space to create a less cluttered, more powerful arrangement of objects. In contrast to the Williamstown painting, the Shickman still life has a more saturated palette and is more brightly lit, which has led Jordon to suggest that it might have been intended to evoke the spring months of the year (ibid.). According to this reading, the Williamstown painting, with its warmer lighting and more restrained colors and depictions of grapes, peaches and pomegranates would draw associations with summer months. Although their perspectival constructions and light sources do not work together when the two paintings are hung on the same wall, as one would expect to find if the paintings were designed to function as a pair, these compositional differences find resolution when they are placed on perpendicular walls, with the Shickman painting hanging to the left of its Williamstown companion. Accordingly, it is likely that both works originally belonged to a larger series. Similar series of still lifes representing the seasons were painted by followers of van der Hamen, such as Antonio Ponce and Francisco Barrera (ibid., see also C. Klemm, 'Weltdeutung – Allegorien und Symbole in Stilleben', Münster and Baden-Baden, 1979, pp. 140-218).
Celebrated in his day as one of the greatest painters of his generation, Juan van der Hamen y León was descended from a historic Flemish noble family. His father, Jehan van der Hammen, was a Flemish courtier who had moved from Brussels to Madrid before 1586. His mother, Dorotea Whitman Gómez de León, was half-Flemish and half-Spanish, and was similarly descended from two important noble families from Toledo. In addition to serving as unsalaried Pintor del Rey, van der Hamen was a member of the Flemish Royal Guard of Archers (Archeros del Rey), a distinguished position previously held by his father. As official guardians of the monarch, the members of this exclusive group of nobles accompanied the king in full regalia on all public and ceremonial occasions and as such, enjoyed direct access to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). It was in part thanks to this privileged position that van der Hamen was able to secure some of his most important commissions. Although he was a talented painter of religious subjects and an accomplished portraitist (in 1626, Cassiano dal Pozzo famously preferred van der Hamen’s portrait of the Papal Legate, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, to one by Velázquez), it was as a still life painter that he secured his reputation as one of the greatest artists of his generation (W.B. Jordan and P. Cherry, op. cit., pp. 44-45). Van der Hamen had already distinguished himself in this field by 1619, when he was commissioned to paint a still life with fruit and game for the hunting palace of El Pardo, to the north of Madrid. Though this royal commission is now lost, documents reveal that it was intended to hang alongside five other still lifes, possibly by Sánchez Cotán, for the south gallery of the newly reconstructed palace (ibid.). As Peter Cherry and Jordan have observed, this early exposure to Sánchez Cotán’s work must have had a formative influence on the young artist, who adopted the older artist’s 'window-frame format and strive for a lucid portrayal of space' (ibid., p. 47). Yet van der Hamen modified Sánchez Cotán’s style, moving beyond the Toledo painter’s astonishing realism and remarkable spatial illusionism to focus more on geometric purity and the plasticity of his forms. Simultaneously, van der Hamen tailored his subject matter to appeal to the tastes of his cosmopolitan clients in courtly circles of Madrid. Rather than portraying a discrete grouping of fruit and vegetables, of the type one encounters in Sánchez Cotán’s paintings, such as his sensationally powerful Bodegón with a cardoon and francolin (fig. 2), or in the still lifes of van der Hamen’s contemporary in Seville, Francisco de Zurbarán (fig. 3), van der Hamen filled his compositions with exotic flowers, delectable confections and pastries, and imported ceramic vessels and Venetian glass.
Van der Hamen is the first documented Spanish still life painter to vary the shapes of his compositions, painting on round and octagonal supports. Yet his greatest contribution was his departure from the established symmetrical window-frame still-lifes in 1626 to a new, asymmetrical format in which objects are displayed on three stone plinths of varying lengths and heights. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which van der Hamen’s paintings were admired during his lifetime. His still lifes inspired early 17th-century Spanish authors to write more encomiums in prose and verse than the work of any of his contemporaries, including Diego Velázquez (J. Brown, The Golden Age of Painting in Spain, New Haven, 1991, p. 103). Poets and critics such as Lope de Vega and Francesco Pacheco hailed him as the new Apelles, whose art surpassed that of Nature and was unrivaled in his short lifetime. Indeed, when the artist died at the tragically young age of 35, the writer Juan Perez de Montalván lamented that 'if he were living, he would be the greatest Spaniard his art had ever known' (quoted in W.B. Jordan and P. Cherry, Spanish Still Life from Velázquez to Goya, op. cit. p. 56). Van der Hamen’s pioneering paintings helped to establish an enduring tradition of still life paintings in Spain that would extend through the following centuries, finding its culmination in the 20th century with the revolutionary works of Pablo Picasso.