After El Greco and Velázquez, Zurbarán is generally accepted as the third greatest painter of Spain in its great painting age, about 1575-1675. Of the other plausible candidates, Ribera is apparently disqualified for emigrating (an immigrant, like El Greco, is all right) and because he alone focused on earthy facts, with respect to both visual appearances and social references. What is wanted evidently is something a bit grand and also distanced. Murillo did get on the list in the Victorian period, with Velázquez and Zurbarán, but now he seems too Victorian by far; his beggar boys and immaculate virgins alike seem sugary, though it could well happen that a select list of his driest works could re-emerge in postmodern taste. They are also his most personal, and it was perhaps his assistants who heaped on the sugar in their repeat versions of his subjects.

Yet Zurbarán’s...


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