I encountered Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) by chance some years ago in an essay by Theodore Dalrymple. The English writer was contrasting the bleak intellectual arrogance of neo-atheism with the humble inspiration found in the still life works of this devout Spanish artist. Though Dalrymple himself is an atheist (I would say a non-theist rather than an anti-theist) he found himself moved by Cotán’s almost reverential depiction of everyday objects.
Willard Spiegelman’s review of a new exhibit featuring Cotán’s paintings offers a similar appreciation. He specifically discusses the “Still Life With Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber” (c. 1602). It sounds more prosaic than profound. But as Spiegelman explains, “The work will surprise a viewer whose experience of still life derives from ostentatious Dutch, Italian, or later French examples. Rather than abundance, we have paucity; rather than a showy display, we have single items held up as under a microscope. These are not life’s riches, they are reminders of it ephemerality.” Such severe naturalism was ahead of its time in an era dominated by grandiose themes and ornamental flourishes.
One appreciates the simplicity, even the starkness of the image: “There is no clutter… The kitchen, not the dining room, provides the setting.” A uniformly dark, plain background offsets the textural detail of the fruit and vegetables. Both are delimited by a rustic window frame. Together these elements make a picture that is more than sentimentality or a piece of trompe l’oeil virtuosity.
As a friend of the brilliant El Greco, and a successful painter in his own right, Cotán brought skill as well as introspection to his craft. One discovers the same meticulous technique found in later still life masters like William Harnett. But beyond that, his visual meditations represent an aesthetic mixed with the ascetic. Spiegelman reminds us that in previous epochs such works of nature morte (literally “dead nature”) were often a memento mori (an allegorical reminder of our mortality). It is no surprise that Cotán eventually chose the austere religious vocation of the Carthusians. One envisions it as a kind of monastic “still life”—a mystical extension of his quietly creative insights.