Appearing at auction for the first time, Bodegón with a cardoon and francolin is one of only six existing still lifes by Juan Sánchez Cotán. These extraordinary works have been described as 'unique phenomena in the history of art' (W.B. Jordan and P. Cherry, op. cit., p. 27). The astonishing realism of the objects portrayed and the remarkable spatial illusionism of these pictures have few known antecedents and they are among the earliest still lifes painted in Europe. The rediscovery of the present work, described by William B. Jordan as 'a hitherto unknown, signed still life of great beauty and characteristic elegance', in 1987 was hailed as 'the most significant addition to the artist's oeuvre since the discovery of the San Diego Quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber [Fig. 1] in the 1940s' (W.B. Jordan, 1990, p. 97).
Despite his importance and originality very little is known of Sánchez Cotán's life and artistic career. He was baptized in the small town of Orgaz, near Toledo, on 25 June 1560. We know virtually nothing of his artistic training but, judging from his religious works and one surviving portrait, one would imagine that he had a fairly conventional training, within the stylistic orbit of the painters working at the Escorial monastery in the last quarter of the 16th Century. In addition to devotional works and portraits it seems that Sánchez Cotán also painted copies after famous Italian masters such as Titian, Cambiaso and the Bassano. His still lifes, however, are of a different character entirely, and their intense naturalism finds no parallel in his other paintings. They reveal a sophisticated and challenging artistic environment in Toldeo at this time.
The artist and biographer Francisco Pacheco, writing in 1649, described Sánchez Cotán as famous for his still lifes in his own lifetime and that he was a pupil of Blas de Prado (Toledo c. 1546-c. 1600), who also seems to have practised this genre, and is recorded as painting fruit as early as 1592. According to the custom of the time, Sánchez Cotán's apprenticeship would have begun by at least 1575, and by about 1580 he could have been an independent painter. Toledo was thus a very early centre of still-life painting, at the end of the 16th Century, at roughly the same time that similar, though unconnected, experiments in this field were being carried out by artists in northern Italy and Antwerp.
This burgeoning interest in still-life painting was actually a revival of an ancient genre that was practised by legendary artists such as Zeuxis and Peiraikos. None of these ancient paintings survives, but their compelling naturalism is described in numerous classical texts. These texts were examined by 16th Century humanists and were important in contemporary discussions concerning the nature of painting. Such discussions focused on the mimetic powers of the painter, and the revival of the ekphtatic still life was the practical outcome of such debates. This coincided with a growing interest in Natural History, and it seems that such works would have been appreciated by a small group of highly sophisticated collectors and intellectuals.
That such a group existed in Toledo is evident from our knowledge of Sánchez Cotán's earliest patrons. The first probable reference to one of the artist's still lifes comes from the posthumous inventory of Cardinal Pedro Girón García de Loaysa (1542-99), a confidant of King Philip II, tutor to the future Philip III and Archbishop of Toledo. His successor as Archbishop, Cardinal Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas (1546-1618) was even more active in this field, for not only did he own a number of still lifes by the artist, but he also cultivated a botanical garden at his country estate which included many live specimens from the New World. In their taste and patronage both Loasya and Sandoval seem to have shared the interests of their Milanese contemporary Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), whose patronage of Caravaggio and Jan Brueghel I was equally decisive for the early development of the genre elsewhere in Europe.
The artistic life of Toledo was further enhanced in this period by the presence of El Greco, who had moved there from Italy in 1577. Sánchez Cotán knew him, as El Greco is recorded in a document as owing him money. The nature of the debt is not revealed, but Sánchez Cotán seems to have been relatively rich, with links to important patrons and the most advanced intellectual circles of the day. It is thus something of a surprise to learn that in 1603, at the age of 43, he left Toledo and moved to Granada, where he took vows as a lay brother of the Carthusian Order.
On 13 August 1603, two days after his departure, an inventory was drawn up of the contents of his studio, and this remains the most revealing document regarding his work. Among the sixty pictures mentioned the majority were his more conventional religious subjects and portraits, as well as copies after Italian masters. A further twelve canvases refer to his still lifes, and of these five can be identified today: Game fowl, fruit, vegetables and a cardoon, signed and dated 1602, Museo del Prado (Fig. 2); Quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber, signed, San Diego Museum of Art (Fig. 1); Quince, cabbage, melon, cucumber and game fowl, The Art Institute of Chicago (Fig. 3); Game fowl, fruit and Cardoon, private collection, Madrid, and the present work. Two other works listed in the inventory can be identified from surviving copies: A hamper of cherries and a basket of apricots, Colección Banco Urquijo; and Onions, garlic and chestnuts, private collection, Paris. One other work that is fully accepted as by Sánchez Cotán, but which does not appear in the inventory is Cardoon and carrots, Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada (Fig. 4), and it has generally been assumed that this was painted after the artist's move to Granada in 1603. No other still lifes, however, can be identified from this period of his life, and it is generally supposed that he concentrated on religious subjects after this date.
The present work is thus one of only three signed pictures, and is the only one in which the signature is painted in perspective on the inner part of the ledge, on the right. Both the Prado and San Diego pictures are both signed lower centre on the outside of the ledge, and only the former is dated 1602. The present picture's signature is rubbed, but is still distinct except for the last two letters, which may in fact be a date, but this has not been possible to decipher.
It is clear from the artist's surviving still lifes that he often reused motifs in different canvases. The impressive cardoon of the present work can also be seen in the Prado picture and the four objects in the San Diego still life also reappear with the addition of game fowl in the picture in the Art Institute of Chicago. All the pictures use the same compositional device of a painted niche or window (called a ventana in the inventory). This creates a precisely defined perspectival space within which the objects, are displayed. Seen against a dark background, the various items of fruit, vegetables and game birds are brightly lit from the side, thereby casting strong shadows. Certain items, such as the cardoon in the present picture, or the melon and cucumber in the San Diego and Chicago pictures, project outwards, breaking the conventional picture plane to create a compelling sense of realism.
The objects portrayed in these works are all typical of the contemporary larder or cantarero. All formed part of the Spanish diet of the period. The cardoon was a popular vegetable of the thistle family, that was boiled until tender and cooked in stews. The Francolin, or African Partridge, was once common in southern Europe, but is now found only in Asia Minor and Cyprus. These two objects are depicted in isolation, the empty space between them reminiscent of the majestic San Diego picture (Fig. 1) and that in Granada (Fig. 4), rather than the more crowded compositions of the Prado and Chicago pictures (Figs. 2 and 3).
State of Conservation
The present picture is unique among the artist's surviving still lifes in being of upright rather than horizontal format. During conservation work undertaken by Robert Shepherd in 1987, it became apparent that a small amount had been cut off either side, for the outer walls of the niche should be visible as it is in the uncut Prado picture (Fig. 2). It was discovered that part of these pieces of canvas taken from the sides had been attached to the top and bottom of the picture to extend the picture's height. In addition to this it was discovered that the picture had also been cut down the middle and a small section of canvas had been removed. Although it is impossible to gauge exactly how much of the central section is missing close examination of the canvas weave and the use of radiograph pictures to reveal the underlying preparation show that the missing section of canvas in the middle may have been around 3 to 5 inches (aprox. 8 to 13 cm.). A reconstruction of the dimensions of the painting along these lines (see Fig. 6) would also accord with the dimensions of the other still lifes, which range in width from 33½ to 35 inches (85 to 89 cm.). The reason for this modification has yet to be understood, but it could have been due to damage sustained by the picture in the central section, or else the composition could have been compressed to fit a particular frame or decorative scheme.
Given the missing section of canvas it is natural to speculate as to whether there was another object depicted in the picture. In this context it is interesting to note another picture by the slightly later artist Felipe Ramírez, dated 1628 (71 x 92 cm., Fig. 5). Ramírez faithfully copied the cardoon and the francolin from Sánchez Cotán's painting and in addition to these he also added two hanging bunches of grapes and a vase of flowers. This cannot, however, have been a direct copy of the earlier artist's picture before its re-formating, because both the grapes and the flowers extend into the curved space of the cardoon, and very close to the francolin. Furthermore, the radiograph photos confirm that no such forms were ever present in the composition. It is much more likely that the painting originally depicted nothing more than the two objects that we see, albeit slightly further apart. This would have given the picture more of the openness of the San Diego or the Granada pictures.
Both the cardoon and the francolin are in a remarkably good state of preservation; the brushwork on the former particularly impressive. The signature, although rubbed, is original and with no sign of retouching. Interestingly the radiograph pictures also indicate an area of pentimenti under the cardoon. The outline of a round object is visible, and it is tempting to speculate as to whether the artist initially painted a melon, as in the San Diego and Chicago pictures, before changing his mind in favour of the more flamboyant shape of the cardoon.