The biography of Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664)

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), of Basque origin, was a Spanish painter, relatively unknown, best known primarily for his religious paintings depicting monks, nuns, and martyrs, and for his still-lifes and, for a few years, court portraits in Madrid. Zurbarán gained the nickname Spanish Caravaggio, owing to the forcible, realistic use of chiaroscuro in which he excelled. It is unknown whether Zurbarán had the opportunity to copy the paintings of Michelangelo da Caravaggio. He worked in oils and was clearly, at some point, acquainted with the works of Michelangelo.

Zurbarán was born in the suburb of Fuente de Cantos in Extremadura, on the boundaries of Andalusia, November 7, 1598. He was son of Luis Zurbarán, a haberdasher, and Isabel Márquez. In childhood he set about imitating objects with charcoal. In 1614 his father sent him to Seville to apprentice for three years with Pedro Díaz de Villanueva, an artist of whom very little is known. While in Seville, Zurbarán married Leonor de Jordera, by whom he had several children. In order to support himself he had to become an art dealer, though he was not successful in business either.

He painted directly from nature, and he made great use of the lay-figure in the study of draperies. He had a special gift for white draperies; as a consequence, the houses of the white-robed Carthusians are abundant in his paintings.

The painter who may have had the greatest influence on his characteristically severe compositions was Juan Sánchez Cotán, polychrome sculpture which provided another important stylistic model for the young artist. The work of Juan Martínez Montañés is especially close to Zurbarán’s in spirit.

In 1627 he painted the great altarpiece of St. Thomas Aquinas, now in the Seville museum. This is Zurbarán’s largest composition, containing figures of Christ, the Madonna, various saints, Charles V with knights, and Archbishop Deza with monks and servitors, all the principal personages being more than life-size. It had been preceded by numerous pictures of the screen of St. Peter Nolasco in the cathedral.

Towards 1630 he was appointed painter to Philip IV. In 1633 he finished the paintings of the high altar of the Carthusians in Jerez. In the palace of Buenretiro, Madrid are four large canvases representing the Labours of Hercules. A fine example of his work is in the National Gallery, London: a whole-length, life-sized figure of a kneeling Franciscan holding a skull. His principal scholars were Bernabe de Ayala and the brothers Polanco (painters).

Towards the end of his career, Zurbarán’s work lost something of its power and simplicity as he tried to come to terms with the less ascetic style of Murillo, who in the 1640s overtook him as the most popular painter in Seville. His fortunes fell with Murillo’s rise.

In 1658, late in Zurbarán’s life he moved to Madrid in search of work and renewed his contact with Velazquez. Francisco de Zurbaran's apprenticeship was undertaken in Seville, where he met Velazquez and became one of the city's official painters.

The museum at Buda-Pesth has an Immaculate Conception painted in 1661, a year before his death. Mention may be made of many other of his works, e.g. Christ Crowning St. Joseph (Seville), the Portiuncula (Cadiz), the Blessed Virgin and St. John on Calvary (Munich), a St. Francis of Assisi (Dresden), a St. Lawrence (St. Petersburg), an Adoration of the Shepherds (National Gallery), long attributed to Velazquez, but now commonly restored to Zurbaran.

Zurbaran died in poverty and obscurity probably at Madrid August 27, 1664. His son Juan (1620-49) is known from a few still-life paintings.