Exposición: Juan Fernández el Labrador. Naturalezas muertas

Very little is known about Juan Fernández “El Labrador”. He is only documented between 1630 and 1636, the year in which he painted his only signed work. Nonetheless, there are indirect references to him during that period, the first by Giovanni Battista Crescenzi who was the great factotum and one of the most important artistic advisers to the Spanish Habsburgs at this period. Crescenzi sold these four canvases to one of the English ambassadors in Spain, along with four other works from his collection. It is not a coincidence that the first recorded information on El Labrador derives from Crescenzi given that this Italian aristocrat was also an amateur painter and one of the principal promoters of the still life, not just in Spain but also in Italy. After this, however, we only have even more indirect references to the artist. While the few artists and theoreticians who were familiar with El Labrador’s work work always praised at length its quality, virtuosity and the way it visually involves the viewer, they provided almost no biographical information and El Labrador is consequently an enigmatic painter with regard to his name and origins. In addition, his works encourage this sense of mystery, with their distinctive lighting and highly individual, painstaking approach to the depiction of natural objects. The result is to make something in principle simple, natural and clear-cut into a highly sophisticated object that offers the viewer a visual challenge. While making use of the techniques and devices of naturalism, El Labrador’s approach was always distinctive, even modern, as he frequently truncated the objects with the result that not everything can be seen. This way of cutting off the viewpoint, always associated with a bunch of grapes, particularly ones on table tops or ledges in the late still lifes, is almost cinematographic. In contrast, the artist’s early floral still lifes are unique due to the concept of suspension that they involve, while they are also timeless as they lack objects that indicate the period in which they were painted; rather, the flowers are studied almost as botanical specimens. El Labrador is exceptional not just for his almost obsessive manner of describing detail but also because he was one of the few Spanish artists who enjoyed a degree – albeit limited – of international recognition in Europe. Furthermore, his paintings were in great demand not only from English ambassadors: we know that the Queen of France owned a work by him while the inventories of the leading Spanish aristocratic collectors list fruit and grape still lifes by his hand. The present exhibition has aimed to present most of the artist’s known output, comprising no more than around thirteen or fourteen panels, of which eleven are to be seen here. El Labrador merits rediscovery and it is very likely that in the light of this exhibition new works by his hand will appear or be discovered as we know from documentary references that more existed. This is a very important exhibition as it will revive a still-life artist of remarkable abilities who enjoyed considerable renown in his own lifetime but who is now largely unknown to the general public and even to specialists, in that only experts in this particular period of still-life painting are familiar with him.

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