Masterpieces of European Painting from the Norton Simon Museum
February 10 through May 10, 2009
Although Francisco de Zurbarán is thought of primarily as a painter of religious narratives, his Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose is a milestone in both the artist’s oeuvre and in the history of the genre. Besides its sheer beauty, it is Zurbarán’s only signed and dated still life. Resting on a brown tabletop against a velvety black background is a basket brimming with oranges and crowned with orange blossoms; at right, a lustrous silver dish displays a pink rose and a white two-handled cup filled with water. A second silver plate holds four citrons, whose thick, bumpy rind distinguishes them from lemons. (The two fruits are often confused, as in the painting’s title.) An intense light coming from the viewer’s left defines the objects, inducting them into the three-dimensional world while skillfully avoiding illumination of the nebulous space behind them. This penetrating radiance cascades across the polished surface of the table, casting partial reflections of the citrons, basket, and plates. After a recent cleaning in preparation for its travel to the Frick, the objects now project more convincingly, while Zurbarán’s signature and the painting’s date are more easily discernible on the table’s lower edge.
Though the composition may have been designed to be a still life devoid of deeper meaning, the traditional associations of the individual objects encourage a symbolic reading: the citrons are a paschal fruit and denote faithfulness; the basket of oranges represents virginity; orange blossoms, fecundity; water, purity; and the rose is a symbol of divine love. The image has been construed as an homage to the Virgin; indeed, several of the objects depicted appear in other paintings by Zurbarán in which the Virgin is the central theme. Additionally, the structural division of the composition into three separate units might allude to the Trinity. No documentation exists, however, to confirm that these symbolic associations were intended by Zurbarán or understood as such by his contemporary audience. Moreover, x-radiographs of the painting reveal that Zurbarán originally had included a silver plate of batatas confitadas, a popular treat of candied sweet potatoes. This may indicate that the artist was more concerned, at least initially, with the physical qualities of the objects than with their symbolic allusions.
Zurbarán’s still life was once part of the distinguished collection of Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi (1878–1955), and, like all of Contini’s artworks, it was to be bequeathed to the Italian nation. Owing to complex negotiations with the count’s heirs, however, only a fraction of the legendary collection ultimately came into the possession of the Italian state, and the still life was not part of it. Simon, prompted by rumors that the Louvre was about to acquire the painting, spent an impressive $2,725,000 for it in 1972, the third highest price paid for an Old Master at the time.
For more information, see The Cleaning of a Masterpiece.
—Margaret Iacono, Assistant Curator
A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It contains a comprehensive essay on Norton Simon’s collection by Sara Campbell, Senior Curator at the Norton Simon Museum, as well as detailed entries by Margaret Iacono on the five paintings on loan to the Frick.
Masterpieces of European Painting from the Norton Simon Museum is organized by Colin B. Bailey, Associate Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator of The Frick Collection, and Carol Togneri, Chief Curator of the Norton Simon Museum, with the assistance of Margaret Iacono, Assistant Curator of The Frick Collection.
Principal funding for the exhibition is provided by Melvin R. Seiden in honor of Colin B. Bailey. Major corporate support is provided by Fiduciary Trust Company International. Additional support is generously provided by the Thaw Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. John P. Birkelund, and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.