Still Life after F de Zurbaran 2000 Oil on Canvas 30 x 30 cms (frame painted by artist)

This painting prompted another question for the Art Executor: should it be included in a catalogue of Jenny’s Still Life works? Or to put it another way, how would she have wanted it classified?

My uncertainty came from remembering that she had been rather defensive when I asked to buy it. I can’t remember quite what she said but it was on the lines of ‘it’s an exercise, not really a painting.’ And it is a very unusual painting for her. No other oil painting has a composition with just one pot.

As soon as I saw it I coveted it, and a year later I bought it from her. (I only bought three paintings from her ever: if you are close to an artist whose work you love you need to ration yourself. So this is one of my top three of her paintings.) Before she would let it go she had it framed, and then re-painted the frame. The title, she said, was ‘After Zurbaran’. She had painted it to recreate the composition of Cup of Water and a Rose on a Silver Plate’, by Francisco de Zurbaran, the National Gallery’s 1997 acqusition, because she had been bothered by its perspective.

Francisco de Zurbarán A Cup of Water and a Rose 1630 Oil on canvas, 21.2 x 30.1 cm

She had gone to IKEA and bought a cup and saucer of similar shape and proportion, taken a tulip , and set about recreating the composition. Then she painted it, purely for herself, to see if the water in the cup could really have been seen from the painter’s angle. It wasn’t intended as a copy: much though she admired de Zurbaran her still life paintings came from a very different mindset. She didn’t want to imitate or recreate it, she just wanted to know that he had been right. I think of it as an artistic itch she had to scratch.

All this was 20 years ago, but compiling the catalogue bought the conversation back to me as a dilemma: plainly it was a painting which she valued, as we see from her signature, but how should it be classified? Her photograph records show that after selling it she changed her mind and called it ‘Homage to F de Zurbaran’ instead of ‘Still Life: After F de Zurbaran’, so I think that is a sign that she wouldn’t want it to be judged alongside her Still Life paintings, which have a deeper motivation. In fact, it defies classification, it is a one off.

Jenny first saw a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran at the 1995 National Gallery Exhibition “Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya”, which we had been to together and loved. Actually love is too neutral a word – it was a revelation. The Juan Sanchez Cotan paintings in the first room – so vibrant and spiritual at the same time – were a visual shock. We spent most of our time there considering whether the exhibition notes were right to see in them an underlying spiritual message or religious symbolism rather than an artist’s fascination with bringing mundane objects to canvas in a way which dramatised their existence. Jenny was struck by their use of natural geometry, central to her own still life art.

Jenny also spent a lot of time looking at the only painting in the exhibition by Francisco de Zurbaran, a painter I had never heard of. The composition of four pots in a row was one Jenny had used several times, and reminiscent of some Morandi still lifes. But its character or effect was completely different: it had a mysterious, spiritual quality quite unlike any 20th century painting.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Still Life with Four Vessels, Oil on canvas, 46 x 84 cm

I see now that Jenny’s ‘Homage to F de Zurbaran’ on the one hand confirms the perspective but on the other removes its mystery. The neutral palette (which she had emphasised in the paint she used on the frame) renders it merely a cup and a saucer and a rose.

The influence of the Spanish Still LIfe exhibition can be seen in Curve and in Still Life with Pear, both painted in 1997. And 17 years later the flower pot studies used a similar contrast of glowing colour against deep shade to hint at the mystery of the spaces in between. An artist’s experiences can influence their work after a long gestation and without their being conscious of it.