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Still Life with Grapes, Apples, Nuts and Terracotta Jar, Juan Fernández el Labrador. Oil on canvas, 62,5 x 46,5 cm, c.1633, Private Collection.

MADRID.- The Museo del Prado presents the first monographic exhibition on one of the most exquisite painters in 17th-century Europe: Juan Fernández El Labrador, who was active in Madrid between 1630 and 1636. El Labrador is one of the least known artists working in this genre and within the history of Spanish Baroque painting. 

While El Labrador’s paintings have previously been included in survey exhibitions on the still life, this is the first time that almost all his oeuvre has been brought together. Comprising eleven of the thirteen painting attributed to him, the exhibition will help to promote greater knowledge of this enigmatic artist’s remarkable output. In addition to bringing together almost all his known paintings for the first time, the exhibition will allow visitors to appreciate works that have never or very rarely been on public display in Spain. This is the case with Still Life of Grapes, Acorns and a Glass with Apples from a private Barcelona collection. It was formerly in the collection of the Dukes of Parcent and has not been seen in public since it was sold at auction in 1979. Similarly, Still Life with Grapes and Still Life with Grapes, Apples, dried Fruit and a terracotta Jug, both in private collections, have only been seen in exhibitions outside Spain, while Still Life with Grapes, Quinces and dried Fruit is in the British Royal Collection will be seen for the first time in Spain. That work arrived in Britain around 1634-35 after it was commissioned by the English Ambassador in Madrid who gave it to Charles I, one of the most sophisticated art collectors in Europe at the time and the owner of an outstanding collection. Charles patronised artists such as Orazio Gentileschi, Rubens and Van Dyck. 

While El Labrador’s images of grapes and autumn fruit constitute his best known and most numerous works, there are also two flower paintings, one of which belongs to the Prado. It will hang alongside the other works in the small gallery of still lifes into which Room D in the Jerónimos Building will be transformed for the exhibition. 

Sections of the exhibition The exhibition is organised into 2 sections that reveal the evolution of the artist’s compositions, from his earliest works that solely depict bunches of grapes to his late paintings in which they are combined with other elements. 

Section I. A modern Zeuxis

Bunches of grapes have been a favoured motif in still-life paintings since the genre was invented in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. By depicting them artists could demonstrate their skills, capturing textures, structure and the stage of ripeness of the fruit. However, for an erudite public they also evoked a classical episode that upheld the superiority of painting. According to classical texts, in the 5th century BC the Greek painter Zeuxis of Heraclea depicted grapes with such realism that some birds came down to peck at them in one of his paintings of this subject. 

In his earliest known works El Labrador only depicted grapes, which are presented in a striking manner. The minutely detailed bunches are seemingly suspended in darkness and lit with extremely contrasting light while all spatial references are eliminated. The grapes’ realistic, instantaneous appearance challenged viewers of the day and revealed the artist’s remarkable imitative powers, which were sufficient for him to be termed a modern Zeuxis. 

Section II Nature on the canvas: spring and autumn

From 1633 El Labrador began to paint more complex compositions in which his distinctive grapes are combined with other elements. These still lifes always include fruit and plants that ripen in autumn or keep well over the following months. Generally products of the summer and autumn, they are depicted alongside bunches of grapes on small ledges that are seen from the front and stand out against the shadowy backgrounds. An apparent disorder prevails in these works, in which the artist generally added a refined vessel or recipient made of a gleaming or coloured material that creates a subtle contrast with the simplicity of acorns or chestnuts. These works can be seen as celebrations of autumn in which the variety of fruit implies a display of humble abundance. In 1635, and perhaps on the suggestion of one of his English clients, El Labrador expanded his range of subjects to depict bouquets of flowers. These brought him fame due to their freshness and sense of realism and he added new, spring-like colours to his palette.

Juan Fernández El Labrador

The documentation on Juan Fernández located to date only refers to the first seven years of the 1630s. The artist was known as “El Labrador” [the agricultural labourer] due to his rural origins and while it is assumed that he was born in Extremadura, nothing is known of his birth or artistic training. He was brought up by a leading Italian aristocrat, Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, who had an important influence on artistic matters in the reigns of Philip III and Philip IV. Crescenzi was one of the promoters of the still life and it seems very likely that he encouraged El Labrador to devote himself to painting fruit. This genre was evolving rapidly and was greatly in demand at the Madrid court and throughout Europe. The humble appearance of El Labrador’s paintings, which are both extremely simple and astonishingly realistic, must have cause a great impact at a time when such works were becoming more complex and Baroque. 

Around 1633 Juan Fernández left Madrid. According to his early biographers he retired to the country where he devoted himself to “portraying” the fruits of the natural world, with which he would have been notably familiar. It is said that he came to court during Easter Week to sell his paintings, which were acquired by the most important aristocratic collectors. Among the artist’s clients was the British Ambassador, Sir Arthur Hopton, who sent works by El Labrador to Charles I. Another royal collector to own a painting was Anne of Austria, Queen of France. As a result, El Labrador was one of the few Spanish artists known outside the Iberian Peninsula in the 17th century. 

El Labrador’s fame was based on his highly individual approach to the depiction of fruit and flowers, particularly grapes, which were the principal motif in his paintings. In his still lifes he reveals a distinctive combination of the naturalist tradition with startling compositional formats. His use of painstaking detail is heightened by the extremely contrasting lighting derived from Caravaggio and a very close-up viewpoint. The dark backgrounds and absence of spatial references make these works completely timeless, particularly his depictions of hanging bunches of grapes, which convey an aesthetic close to modern art. While the artist can be related to the evolution of the genre in the first half of the 17th century, his work also implies a unique contribution for its time.

El Labrador’s enigmatic personality and the fact that he moved away from the court at the height of his artistic powers, focusing on a new naturalism that went against the prevailing trend of the time, is even more striking given the very small number of works known by his hand. While there are early references to other paintings by him, at the present time only thirteen can be securely attributed. 

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Juan Fernández “El Labrador”, Still Life with Four Bunches of Grapes, c. 1630 - 1635. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

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Vase of Flowers Juan Fernández el Labrador. Oil on canvas, 44 x 34 cm c.1635 - 1636, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

 

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Two Bunches of hanging Grapes, Juan Fernández el Labrador. Oil on canvas, 29 x 38 cm, c. 1629 - 1630, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado