There are only five paintings in the loan exhibition “Masterpieces of European Painting From the Norton Simon Museum,” now at the Frick Collection. This show, which has come to New York from southern California, marks the beginning of an ongoing reciprocal loan arrangement between the two museums.
Interestingly, none of the artists included in the exhibition is represented in the Frick’s own collection. The paintings are Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s (1617-1682) Birth of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1660), Peter Paul Rubens’s Holy Women at the Sepulchre (1611-14), Jacopo Bassano’s Flight Into Egypt (1544-45), Guercino’s Aldrovandi Dog (1625), and Francisco de Zurbarán’s Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633). Sometimes smaller is better, and it is refreshing to be able to concentrate one’s attention on just five beautifully displayed works. However, while all the paintings are of interest, only the Zurbarán is a major masterpiece.
Indeed, the Zurbarán painting is so outstanding that I think it alone merits a visit to the Frick, and a detailed discussion in this column. The canvas, which has recently been cleaned, is framed prominently in the entranceway to the Oval Room, in which the tiny exhibition is displayed. Its value, both historical and monetary, has long been established (Norton Simon paid close to $3 million for it in 1972, an unheard-of sum at the time). By coincidence, this has always been one of my favorite paintings; a reproduction of it has hung in my office for many years.
The painting, which measures only 24½ by 43⅛ inches, can be divided into three sections. In the center a sprig of orange blossoms hovers mysteriously over a luminous straw basket containing oranges. A silver dish on the left holds four meticulously stacked citrons (the wall label identifies them as such, rather than lemons of the title). And on the right, an enamel cup of water rests on a silver saucer, a single rose perching on the edge. Both the dish on the left and the saucer on the right are highly polished, containing reflections of the objects within them. The two dishes and basket are placed on a dark brown table, while the background is even darker. The source of the brilliant light on the objects and fruits is a mystery. Since it comes from a 45-degree angle from the left, it has been interpreted as symbolic of the rising sun. In fact, the meaning of the painting as a whole is open to multiple interpretations.
My own reading is that this is an allegory of the senses, a veritable symphony—or, more accurately, a chamber-music piece for the eyes—suggesting fragrance, taste, and touch. The scents of the orange blossoms and rose form a counterpoint to the tartness of the citrons, mediated by the sweet juiciness of the oranges. And for touch, the texture of the weave of the basket contrasts with the smoothness of the silver. In addition, every bump and indentation of citron and orange is articulated. The separate flowers of the bluish-tinged orange blossoms and their dancing leaves seem to have a life of their own. Still Life in Spanish—“Natura Morte”—means literally “Dead Nature,” a perfect oxymoron. Zurbarán’s painting belongs to the Spanish and Netherlandish traditions of memento mori or vanitás, a trope that emphasizes the transitory nature of life. (A musical example is the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style, for cello and piano, Op. 102, marked Vanitas vanitatum. Mit Humor). Painters of still lifes often included a skull, an insect, or a worm, suggesting death and decay. These were intended as warnings to human beings about the ephemerality of human existence. Zurbarán’s admonition, however, is more subtle; the only intimation is the contrast between the vibrancy of the fruit and flowers, and the darkness of the background. Using a minimum of means, the master deftly evokes many dualities: life and death, warm and cool, complex and simple. This still life paradoxically reverberates with vibrancy; you cannot take your eyes off it.
I am quite familiar with Zurbarán’s other works, as I once studied in Paris with a well-known art historian, Maurice Serrulaz, who spent most of a semester on him in a course called 17th-Century Spanish Painting. Zurbarán actually lived in a monastery for a time, in order to experience the inward feel and silence of the monastic life. The greater part of his oeuvre deals with religious themes—monks, saints, and biblical stories predominate—and he produced very few still lifes.
This is one reason that the painting is usually interpreted as a religious allegory. In fact, on several occasions the master has painted larger canvases in which he depicted the Virgin Mary, accompanied by still lifes similar to this one. Here his display of each separate object as if upon an altar may be significant. Indeed, the citrons, cup, and rose are presented literally upon silver platters. Some consider this work an homage to the Virgin, the tripartite composition representing the Trinity, the citrons standing for faithfulness, the oranges for virginity, the orange blossoms fecundity, the water purity, and the rose divine love. As for lemons, they are known to signify wealth in Netherlandish still lifes, but they cannot be interpreted in this way here, since they are native to Spain. Nonetheless, Zurbarán displays them not as an everyday fruit, but rather, as a solemn offering. Further evidence of the special significance of the citron (or etrog in Hebrew) is its use in the Jewish religious ritual during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. Citrons have always been considered Jewish symbols, and are found on various Hebrew antiques and archeological findings.
Zurbarán was certainly influenced by his contemporary, Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627); both isolate the individual objects from one another, and place them in dark backgrounds. As in Netherlandish “disguised symbolism” of the 15th century, the carefully planned composition may possess a dual meaning: it is possible in real life, but at the same time possesses symbolic connotation.
Then again, there is always the possibility that Zurbarán was merely painting what he saw. A radiograph of the painting (at frick.org) reveals that he originally included candied sweet potatoes, an everyday treat—much less open to a symbolic religious interpretation.
The exhibition remains on view at the Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street, at Fifth Avenue) through May 10. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays; the museum is closed on Mondays and holidays.