Still Life in the Norton Simon
Because it is by Zurbarán,
Who paints Dead Saints as Still Lifes too,
It costs more than you think it can –
Much more than if by me or you.
Art, insufficient in itself,
Can’t make its price without a name;
The famous stuff requires pelf,
And attribution is fair game.
But still these lemons tartness praise,
The blossoms and the fruit smell sweet,
The water wets the cup’s white glaze –
A painterly painting is a feat!
It is a true appreciation
To see beyond art’s own inflation.
Many years ago I was at a conference of Early Modern historians in California. We had been to the Huntingdon, full of wonderful things, and a friend took some of us to the Norton Simon. As we went into the museum, he said, “This is what you can do when you have money – and taste.” This is not at all fair to the Huntingdon, which is a true treasure house, but there was a bit of overkill there, given the origins of the Huntington collections. Henry Huntingdon had bought British art and historical manuscripts by the railroad car; I am pretty sure Sir Thomas Egerton’s heirs have never forgiven him for having bought their patrimony. The Huntington’s collection of 18th c. British portraits is justly famous, including Pinky and the Blue Boy in the same large room of paintings, but I must admit that I found the paintings at the Norton Simon even more compelling, partly because while some portraits can entrance me, more often they bore me. The painting I have chosen for this little essay is a mystical still life by the great Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, better known for his studies of saints, and it left me speechless. This is the one still life Zurbarán signed and dated, and this is the one I cannot forget.
First of all, this is a painting by a painter who is subtly boasting. He is showing that he is more than a modern photorealist; he wants to paint the essence of something, not merely reproduce an image. He is also clearly showing off his skill. He is demonstrating that he can paint texture in such a way that the citrus skin looks like citrus skin, the pewter gleams like pewter, and the water even looks wet! The ceramic cup looks as if one could pick it up and drink the water, while one can almost smell the rose and the orange blossoms. Even the pewter looks metallic.
This is the sort of skill that the old masters worked hard to acquire. This still life is a painting, not a photograph or a study meant to fool the eye, but the artist is clearly showing his ability to paint, not only in the actual objects but in their reflections. Even the shadows are convincing.
The Norton Simon website has a fascinating X-ray of the painting that shows Zurbarán’s pentimento, a correction in the image that oil allows. He removed an image between the lemons and the basket of oranges in order, isolating the three groups. As a result, the painting really does have a mystic presence. The number three invariably reminds Christians of the Holy Trinity, and Zurbarán was known for his religious paintings. The table reminds some critics of an altar, and there is much commentary on the painting’s references to Our Lady. The orange blossoms have a long association with weddings, long before Zurbarán lived, and you can consider the bridegroom St Joseph or the famous ikon of Christ in His Passion as “Christ the Bridegroom” of us all. Perhaps the lemons allude to the bitterness of the Mater Dolorosa, and the water in the cup can easily stand for her purity. The rose seems to be without thorns, a reference to Our Lady’s being traditionally known as the thornless rose (Rosa sine spina). If the critics are right, then this painting is more than a brilliant still life; it alludes to the Mother of God herself.
Now I am not an art historian; I am just a layman who merely wishes to point out some works of art I love. In any case, I can readily credit the critics who see the Marian aspects of Zurbarán’s still life. In the National Gallery in London, there is another Zurbarán’s study of the salver, rose, and cup of water that appears as the right side of the Norton Simon masterpiece, and even without the lemons and oranges, it seems almost numinous. However, even those who are a bit allergic to Marian symbolism (as I know some Protestants may be) still must be in awe of Zurbarán’s great skill. He has caught the essence of fruit and water, metal and wicker, with an uncanny ability to capture their texture, just as he uses reflection and shadow as if the objects he painted are real.
Often in a museum, I pass quickly by both still life paintings and portraits on a “search and enjoy” mission. Many of them do not capture my interest, but this is a still life that stopped me cold. It has a presence I cannot ignore. So the next time you are in Los Angeles, take a trip to Pasadena and see the Norton Simon on your way to see the collections and wonderful gardens at the Huntington, the antiquities at the Getty, or the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA. Los Angeles may be a smoggy traffic jam, but it also has outstanding museums.