One of the greatest masters of the Sevillian School, Francisco de Zurbarán is best known for his often startlingly powerful and realistic expression of religious subject matter and his hugely influential but much rarer treatment of still life. After training in the studio of Pedro Díaz de Villanueva in Seville, where he is likely to have come into contact with Juan de Roelas, Francisco de Herrera the Elder - and above all Diego Velázquez and Alonso Cano, then apprentices in the studio of Francisco Pacheco - Zurbarán left the city but was back in 1626 to work on a series of paintings for the Monastery of San Pablo El Real. From this commission comes his first known dated painting, a Crucifixion of 1627 (Chicago, Art Institute), that exhibits a strikingly Caravaggesque realism in the rendition of the figure; the work brought him immediate fame and led to numerous commissions from religious orders.
In 1634, Zurbarán went to Madrid, possibly on the recommendation of Velázquez, to work on the decoration of the Salon de Reinos in the Buen Retiro Palace. This visit not only exposed him to the work of Rubens and other Spanish artists working for the King, but also led to him being given the title of Painter to the King. In the period 1638-9, Zurbarán was employed on two important commissions: the first for the Carthusian monastery of Jérez de la Frontera, the second for the royal Hieronymite monastery at Guadelupe.
As Spain experienced years of great financial difficulty in the decade 1640-50, there were fewer artistic commissions. From this period,
Zurbarán's style gradually changed to incorporate a more diffuse
effect of light with a paler palette and less chiaroscuro.
Dated by Gudiol to the period 1641-1658, this picture has remained in a private collection in Spain and never been exhibited. Although Zurbarán treated the subject of Saint Francis kneeling in prayer on several occasions (see, for example, his two pictures on the theme in the National Gallery, London, as well as that in the Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena), this composition seems to be unique in the artist's oeuvre.
We are grateful to Madame Odile Delenda and Professor Enrique Valdivieso for confirming the attribution, (the former having examined the picture in the original, the latter from transparencies) both seeing in the picture some studio participation. Madame Delenda will include it in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work to be published by the Wildenstein Institute.