Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 A.D. – 1627 A.D.) was a Spanish painter who had a successful career painting altarpieces,  religious works, portraits, and still lifes for the elite art patrons of Toledo.  At the age of 43 he closed up his studio, renounced the world, and entered the great Carthusian monastery of Santa María de El Paular as a monk.   In his final years of painting as an independent artist–just before he left for the cloister in 1603–he mastered a highly realistic style of small ascetic still life paintings called bodegones.    The subjects of these paintings were generally fruit and vegetables, although sometimes a gamebird or ceramic object is included.   The composition is spare to the point of minimalism: setting is reduced to a few matte black angles.  The dramatically lit fruits and vegetables cast deep ominous shadows.  Although the hacked up melon takes pride of place, the quince and cabbage hang dramatically in the middle suspended from twine.  There is an enigmatic and mannered intensity to these works–as though the humble comestibles have become protagonists in a great tragic play or a melancholic opera.  Yet the drama remains elusive and we are left with a tight realistic painting.  Perhaps we will never know why the ornate cabbage seems so downcast despite its flamboyant leaves, or why the cucumber is a nosy outsider, or how the quince seems to be flying away to grace.   Despite the objectively rendered precision of the painting, the beautiful produce of Cotán’s little still life jealously keeps its own secret meaning.