… intriguing still life … 

still life bodegón melon quince cucumber

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602, (San Diego Museum of Art) by Juan Sánchez Cotán (June 25, 1560 – September 8, 1627) was a Spanish painter, now famous for being a pioneer of a Spanish form of still life painting which is also called bodegón.

The Spanish term bodega is a pretty movable term and can mean pantry, grocery, or cellar. In Spanish art, a bodegón is a still life of food often arranged on a simple stone slab or sometimes in a kitchen. The quince and cabbage here show how food was often suspended to prolong its freshness rather than, as I first wondered, some sort of curious presentation technique. The simple images in Cotan’s work are often contrasted with the more opulent Northern European paintings of silverware and fresh flowers.

Soon after this was painted Cotán entered a Carthusian monastery and many historians have linked this spare representation to his later monastic and vegetarian life. However he painted bodegónes with dead animals including this one which is exactly the same arrangement with added dead birds: Still Life with Game Fowl, 1600/03, (the Art Institute of Chicago). Admittedly, the crowded alcove is not such a pleasing image.

spanish baroque still life

Talking about the first painting, Norman Bryson writes: “Absent from Cotán’s work is any conception of nourishment …”*  I agree that the clear light and the precise almost hyper realism of the food makes it less an appetising food stuff and more, perhaps to Cotán’s eyes, a wonder of God’s creation to be scientifically examined and recorded

Bryson also suggests: “What replaces their interest as sustenance is their interest as mathematical form.”* This seemed rather far fetched to me until, on rooting around a little, I found that the gradual curve has been compared to Archimedes’ hyperbola, suggesting that this painting could perhaps be understood as a geometric meditation for an educated class. Archimedes was first translated and published by the Italian Federico Commandino in 1565. This was followed by Luca Valerio’s De Centro Gravitatis in 1604 confirming a strong contemporary interest in spherical bodies that might be related to Cotán’s still-life experiments.**

Musing on spherical mathematics certainly isn’t my idea of fun, however it did remind me of another image, an intriguing miniature painted at the slightly earlier date of c1590-5 by Nicholas Hilliard of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam).


Nicknamed “The Wizard Earl” because of his interest in scientific experiments and his library, here Northumberland is seen in a garden with a serious book at his side and a mathematical puzzle of a sphere and feather behind him. So perhaps fancy maths was a thing at the turn of C17th?

* Bryson, Norman (2012). Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books.

** Taken from Juan Sanchez de Cotán, Quince, Melon and Cucumber. Essay by Dr. Sally Hickson.