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Juan Sanchez CotanJuan Gris
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Unlike the French phrase nature morte (literally "dead nature") or the term "still life," which is its closest equivalent in English, the Spanish term bodegón does not imply death or immobilization, but instead relates to the pantry, or bodega, where the objects pictured in these canvases were commonly kept. And like that space, the traditional bodegón was infused with humility and a sense of the everyday, though as the genre emerged during the Counter-Reformation, these qualities were often coupled with a profoundly transcendental value. In works by pioneers of the genre such as Juan Sánchez Cotán, humble fruits, vegetables, or baked goods are set against an inky black background, enabling sensations of spatial timelessness to intersect with the contradictory impressions of temporal brevity aroused by objects whose precise and minutely described materiality seems to transform them into dramatic reminders of the transience of beauty or the notion of perishability. This tension distinguishes the Spanish bodegón from the sumptuous spreads of the kitchen tables of Flanders, or the expressive burlesque of the figures appearing in Italian pictures of the same time.

Sánchez Cotán and followers such as Francisco de Zurbarán composed their still lifes with a formal rigor that approached the rationality of mathematical law. This tendency helped them to justify their work in a genre that was not yet fully accepted by the artistic community, but their application of the most complex scientific laws of proportion, order, and perspective also adhered to an almost religious interest in geometry as a timeless or immortal aspect of the natural world. This rigid, crystalline quality contrasts with the more universally recognized expressive constant of historic Spanish aesthetic tastes, and reaches across time to Cubism, serving as an important precedent for the fragmented style of Juan Gris in particular. In his canvases, as in much of the early Cubist work of Pablo Picasso, the transcendent geometries of the 17th century take on a modern, wholly secular character, updated to a new cultural moment but still constituting an inescapable historical model.

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Above, left to right:
Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627), Still Life with Fruits and Vegetables, ca. 1602. Oil on canvas 69.5 x 96.5 cm. Várez Fisa Collection, Madrid

Juan Gris (1887–1927), Still Life with Newspaper, 1916. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 60.3 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.