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Culture

Zurbaran, the master of artistic detail

The Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbaran, a contemporary of Diego Velazquez, is revered in Spain, but almost unknown in Germany. An exhibition in Düsseldorf is about to change that.

Francisco de Zurbaran is often called the "painter of monks." Many of his masterly paintings are in fact haunting portraits of saints: He painted more than 50 versions of Saint Francis of Assisi.

And there is much more to Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), Spanish court painter of the Golden Age. He mastered the techniques of contemporary Baroque painting to the utmost perfection, using light and shadow to create spatial perspective. Like fellow 16th century artists Caravaggio, Velazquez and Artemisia Gentileschi, Zurbaran painstakingly painted every little detail: luxurious materials and soft furs look so real you want to touch them. Using fine marten paint brushes, he created still life paintings of ripe fruit that looks good enough to eat.

Rediscovering an old master

In Spain, Francisco de Zurbaran is revered as one of the most important painters of the Golden Age, the period in the 16th and 17th centuries when fine arts flourished in the country.

Most of the paintings presented by the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf are on display in Germany for the very first time. The exhibition "Zurbaran. Master of detail" also shows still life paintings by the master's talented son Juan, who died of the plague at age 29.

His father Francisco, born in 1598 in a small Spanish village, never left Spain. During his apprenticeship in Sevilla, which at the time was Andalusia's art center, he became fast friends with Diego Velazquez. Zurbaran's early works are infused with a deep spirituality. He eventually sought new forms of artistic expression and played with light and shadow to give his paintings more depth.

Person looking at Velazquez painting, Copyright: EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT

"Portrait of the Infant Marguerite in Blue" by Velazquez, who was a friend of Zurbaran

Court painter

Zurbaran started his own business, and soon lucrative commissions for religious paintings came from monasteries. He gained fame throughout Spain for the monumental simplicity of his unique paintings. In 1634, the King asked him to come to Madrid as court painter. Zurbaran began to embrace more mundane motifs, creating a Hercules series with grand portraits of muscular gladiators and paintings of elegantly-dressed court ladies in lavish silk robes.

Hyper-realistic approach

The ample drapes of a precious robe, a lamb's silky fur and the rough linen of a poor monk's frock: How the famous Baroque painter actually made these details come alive on canvas still fascinates artists today. "The way Zurbaran places light around objects to sharpen them is simply masterly," said the German painter Neo Rauch in admiration for the old master's craftsmanship.

Spain's Queen Letizia and German President Joachim Gauck opened the exhibition "Zurbaran. Meister der Details" (Zurbaran. Master of detail)at the Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf. The Baroque paintings are on display until January 31, 2016.

Watch video 02:55

Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran

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