(d. 1657)

Vase of Flowers

Oil on canvas, 44 x 34 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

One of the best-known still-life painters of the 17th century, Juan Fernández was particularly admired for his paintings of grapes. He was an unconventional figure for his time in being an artist who lived in the countryside and worked the land, from which activity he derived the nickname by which he was best known, "El Labrador". However, in the later years of the 1620s, El Labrador became a protege of Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, Marquis of la Torre (1577—1635), the Roman nobleman and painter with a marked interest in still-life painting. Crescenzi may also have promoted his works among collectors at the court of Madrid, as well as the English ambassador Sir Francis Cottington and his secretary Arthur Hopton, who became aficionados of his still-lifes.

El Labrador's flower paintings appear to have been the result of the direct intervention of one of his patrons. In February 1635, Arthur Hopton wrote to Cottington in London that he had persuaded the artist to try his hand at flower paintings, which he had not yet seen, in the hope that these would turn out as well as his fruit still-lifes. While the season of winter would not appear to be propitious to the beginning of a career as a flower painter, it is likely that El Labrador used his own cultivated blooms to paint these pictures. Hopton could not have been disappointed by the remarkable results of his patronage in paintings such as the Vase of Flowers (Private Collection) which El Labrador signed and dated 1636 on the reverse, or the flower piece reproduced here.

In this piece El Labrador has painted the flowers in strong light against a dark background and this has almost bled the pink rose of colour in the highlights. The darkened, discoloured leaves at the base of the arrangement are due to chemical changes that can be seen in other still-life paintings by the artist, perhaps symptomatic of an insufficient artistic training. This floral arrangement, unusually, is made up of relatively few flowers: lilies, a pink rose and carnations.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 7 minutes):
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, ballet suite, op. 71, Waltz of the Flowers