- Juan van der Hamen y León and the Court of Madrid
Juan van der Hamen y León and the Court of Madrid is the accompanying catalogue to an exhibition organized by the Patrimonio Nacional de Madrid and the Meadows Museum in Dallas. It departs from the usual exhibition catalogue format in that, instead of compiling a series of essays from experts on the subject, it was written by only one author, William B. Jordan, the former director of the Meadows Museum whose dissertation (New York University, 1967) dealt with Van der Hamen's œuvre. His knowledge, obtained from so many years of research on the artist, is clearly revealed by this book. Jordan scrupulously examines the details of Van der Hamen's career, an artist primarily known for his spectacular still-lifes, but also active as portraitist and painter of histories. Jordan attributes new works to the master, offers new interpretations, and introduces new documentation to paint a picture, so to speak, of a prolific, successful, and inventive artist working in the court of Madrid alongside the better-known Velázquez.
Little is known of the artist's youth and training, though the author believes that Van der Hamen perhaps apprenticed with either Vicente Carducho or Eugenio Cajés, who were familiar with the Italianate style of painting. Van der Hamen received his first royal commission at the age of twenty-three — a still-life of fruit and game commissioned for the Galería del Mediodía in El Pardo, Philip III's hunting lodge just outside Madrid — the first still-life commission in Spain. Jordan relates the development of the Spanish still-life genre to the region's culinary richness, the fame of Philip III's chef, Francisco Martínez Montiño, who wrote a book on the preparation of pastries and conserves, and the confection shops that then surrounded Madrid's Plaza Mayor. These shops specialized in dried fruits and pastries, some of the most common foods in Van der Hamen's [End Page 1211] compositions. In private homes, it became customary to offer these delicacies to visitors, which prompts Jordan to read Van der Hamen's paintings as symbolic of Spanish hospitality. These works were meant for an aristocratic audience with expensive tastes, as denoted by the inclusion of objects like Venetian glassware and Wan-Li porcelain. In 1626-27, Van der Hamen invented the stepped still-life, in which objects and foods are arranged on platforms of varying heights: for example, the Still Life with Flowers and Fruits at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. After 1628, he also introduced wreaths of flowers enclosing religious scenes or landscapes, as in the Wreath of Flowers with the Immaculate Conception (Madrid, private collection). At this time, Van der Hamen also produced independent flower pictures, called ramilleteros.
Francisco Pacheco wrote that Van der Hamen resented being categorized as an artist of still-lifes. He, in fact, also painted portraits, religious scenes, and mythologies. As a portraitist, Van der Hamen developed a specialty — busts of celebrity writers at court, many of whom he had befriended and who had written encomiums on his art, among them Lope de Vega, Luis de Góngora, Francisco de Quevedo, and his own brother Lorenzo, who was a major intellectual figure at court. Among this illustrious group also figured a woman, Catalina Erauso, called La Monja-Alferéz, the picaresque cross-dresser whose portrait by the artist (San Sebastián, Patrimonio Artístico Kutxa) caused somewhat of a stir. An example of Van der Hamen's religious paintings is his San Isidro (1620-22, Dublin National Gallery), which seems to have been rendered to aid the King of Spain in his efforts to have the saint canonized. Van der Hamen's Offering to Flora (Madrid, Prado) and Pomona and Vertumnus (Madrid, Banco de España Collection) are among his mythological works, the latter read by Jordan as an allegory of marriage. These were probably painted for...