Masterpiece in Residence

Juan Sánchez Cotán (Spanish, 1560–1627); Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber; c. 1602. Oil on canvas, 27 1/8 x 33 1/4 in. (68.9 x 84.5 cm). The San Diego Museum of Art, gift of Anne R. and Amy Putnam, 1945.43. Photo by Matthew Meier.

Masterpiece in Residence

Juan Sánchez Cotán’s Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber

March 6–June 26, 2022

Juan Sánchez Cotán (1561–1627) is among the most celebrated interpreters of still-life painting in Spain. A younger contemporary of El Greco, he, too, thrived in the art market of Renaissance Toledo where, unlike the Greek painter, he was admired as a master of precision and mimesis. Naturalistic details—in this painting, the quince’s dark bruising; the wet, glossy flesh of the melon; and the variegated, pimply Spanish cucumber—have inspired awe in viewers for centuries. Sánchez Cotán’s real innovation, however, lay in his departure from traditional formulae for still-life painting in which foodstuffs were carefully arranged in vessels or on a tabletop, ready for consumption. In Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, it is only the melon that has been cut up to be eaten. Unique to this artist is the hanging of food from string in a windowsill, perhaps that of a larder, which adds dynamism and implies the potential for movement. The painter introduces drama to the banal through artful display and the manipulation of light. Foreshortening, dynamic shadows, and juxtaposition work to give the impression of depth in the two-dimensional plane.

Paintings like this one are as enigmatic as they are fascinating. The unconventional qualities of Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber have inspired modern art historians to mine the image for deeper meaning. Some interpretations look for the meditative or mystical in the composition’s balance and simplicity. However inconclusive, such readings are inspired by events in the artist’s life that point to his Catholic piety. In 1603, Sánchez Cotán abruptly abandoned his successful artistic career in Toledo to return to his native Granada, where he joined a Carthusian monastery as a lay brother. Upon taking orders, he auctioned off all of his belongings, including sixty paintings; among them was Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber.

Hear a reading of the object label (1:48 minutes)