Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…
The National Gallery is not short of big, attention-grabbing showpieces, but there are also small, unassuming pictures that can stop you in your tracks and compel your attention just as effectively.
One that I often return to is this still life, A Cup of Water and a Rose, painted around 1630 by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran, best known for his rather harsh and austere paintings of saints and penitents.
A Cup of Water and a Rose has, despite its small scale, a kind of monumental stillness. That earthenware cup, that silver plate, that rose, all are intensely there and intensely themselves. Dramatised by the deep darkness of the background and the fall of light from somewhere to the left of the picture space, the objects stand there, quietly commanding our attention.
They are painted with a mesmeric verismilitude worthy of Velazquez (or Vermeer) – the play of reflected light on the water in the cup and on the silver plate below is especially beautifully rendered – but this is no trompe l’oeil trickery. The cup, the rose, the plate all hint at deeper meanings. There is almost certainly an element of religious symbolism, but perhaps the deepest meaning, and the deepest mystery, of these objects is simply that they are themselves.
As Oscar Wilde said, ‘The true mystery of the world is the visible.’