5 Minutes with Specialist on a Still-Life Masterpiece by Painter of Spanish Golden Age

Juan van der Hamen y León was one of the greatest still-life painters of the 17th century. One of his masterpieces, Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, has been exhibited as a highlight of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European Painting galleries for many years. The masterpiece presents an array of luxurious objects: tulips, blue and yellow irises, roses in a Venetian crystal vase; an overflowing basket of peaches and a plate of figs.

This one of Juan van der Hamen y León’s largest still lifes was last seen at auction nearly half a century ago. It will lead Christie’s Masterworks from the Estate of Lila and Herman Shickman on 1 May with an estimate of US$6m-9m. What’s so special about this still-life painting? We have invited Cecille Xichu Wang, Representative, Christie's Old Masters Group, to shed light on the painting.

Cecille Xichu Wang, Representative, Christie's Old Masters Group

Juan van der Hamen was descended from a historic Flemish noble family. His father was a Flemish courtier who had moved from Brussels to Madrid before 1586 and his mother was half-Flemish and half-Spanish. Although van der Hamen was a talented painter of religious subjects and an accomplished portraitist, it was as a still life painter that he secured his reputation as one of the greatest artists of his generation. Van der Hamen had already distinguished himself in this field by 1619, when he was commissioned to paint a still life (now lost) with fruit and game for the royal hunting palace of El Pardo, to the north of Madrid.

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit (1629) to be offered at Christie's auction

Van der Hamen developed a personal style that focuses on geometric purity and the plasticity of forms, departing from the astonishing realism and remarkable spatial illusionism seen in the paintings of older Spanish artists, such as Sánchez Cotán, as well as his northern contemporaries, such as Jan Davidsz. de Heem and Jakob Marrel.

Still Life with Sweets and Pottery (1676)

Still life with Artichokes, Flowers and glass Vessels (1627)

Van der Hamen favoured subjects that appealed to the tastes of his cosmopolitan clients in courtly circles of Madrid, filling his compositions with exotic flowers, delectable confections and pastries, and imported ceramic vessels and Venetian glass. His works are distinguished by their brilliant clarity of execution, purity of design and refined description of surface detail. The painter’s greatest contribution to Spanish Baroque art was his departure from the established symmetrical window-frame still-lifes in 1626 to a new, asymmetrical format in which objects are displayed on three stone plinths of varying lengths and heights.

Still Life with Fruit and Glassware (1626). The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Van der Hamen’s still life is a Spanish Baroque painting, produced in a period that is considered the “Golden Age” of Spanish art and roughly spanned the second half of the 16th century through the whole of the 17th century.

Spain was the leading power in Europe at this time, and its artistic trends were profoundly influenced by the Catholic tastes of the Hapsburg monarchs, King Philip IV and his son, Charles II. In addition to Van der Hamen, the leading Spanish artists of this period were Diego Velázquez, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and Francisco de Zurbarán, who produced religious paintings, still lifes, and portraits. Due to its political and economic importance, Spain was in constant contact with other European powers such as Italy, France and the Netherlands, and accordingly the artistic developments in all of these countries influenced one another.

The assortment of luxurious objects found in the painting would have appealed to Van der Hamen's wealthy and educated clientele. By their nature, still lifes often can serve as symbols of the brevity of life since they represent fruits and flowers that will soon rot and fade. Rather than an evocation of memento mori, the present one has a more saturated palette and is more brightly lit which might have been intended to evoke spring, a season of rebirth and abundance.

It has been suggested that the painting was originally part of a larger series of paintings dedicated to the times of the year. The Shickman painting is likely designed to be paired with Still Life with Fruit and Glassware, another painting by the same artist which is now located in the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown. Still life with fruit and glassware has warmer lighting and more muted colours that associate with the summer months. Both paintings are similarly signed and dated 1629, suggesting that they were originally part of a larger series.

Still Life with Fruit and Glassware. Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown

Juan van der Hamen y León (1596-1632). Peaches, pears, plums, peas and cherries in wicker baskets

Lot no.: 109
Size: 86.4 x 131.8 cm

  • Dr. Fritz Rosenberg (1890-1973), Boulder, CO, and by whom sold
  • Anonymous sale; Parke-Bernet, New York, 12 March 1969, lot 28, where acquired by Herman Shickman.

Estimate: US$6,000,000-9,000,000

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Masterworks from the Estate of Lila and Herman Shickman
Sale date: 1 May 2019
26 - 27, 29 - 30 April 2019|10am - 5pm
28 April 2019|1pm - 5pm