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April 21, 2009

Juan Sanchez Cotán

This is a remarkable painting that I saw in the San Diego Museum of Art last week. I like it for two reasons that often seem to apply to great works.

First, it's good in itself. If you had no idea where it came from, you might guess that it's a nineteenth-century American work, or possibly even a contemporary painting based on a photograph. Regardless, you might appreciate the striking composition, with a few large items displayed in an asymmetrical curve before a black background--the melon slice and cucumber extending into our space. You might also admire the realism of the fruit contrasted with the almost abstract frame.

But then you find out that it was painted in 1602 by a rather mysterious figure named Juan Sanchez Cotán. Before Cotán, no one had painted fruit or other inanimate objects by themselves--only as details in larger works. Cotán painted several "still life" paintings of fruit around 1600, and then entered a Carthusian monastery where he painted only religious works until his early death. With his fruits and vegetables, Cotán launched a genre that remained very important for Dutch genre painters in the 17th century, for impressionists and post-impressionists, and then for Cubists and other high modernists. Representing vegetables on a table became a means of exploring space and light, of commenting on art, and of making subtle points about affluence and decay.

Thus Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber has qualities that you cannot infer from the image alone. For instance, we can call it "original" and "influential" because we know what comes before and after in the history of art.

Implication: If someone painted exactly the same picture today (whether or not he copied the original), it would be a different work of art with an entirely different significance from Cotán's painting. Borges explored the same idea in "Pierre Renard, Author of the Quixote." The fictional Renard writes passages of Don Quixote verbatim without consulting the original book, thereby creating a work that is identical to Cervantes' masterpiece in terms of the letters on the page, but entirely different in value and purpose.

April 21, 2009 10:28 AM | category: fine arts | Comments


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