IN the citrus-growing country where I live, people are always trying to give away lemons. Almost every yard has at least one lemon tree. Kids in the neighborhood often play catch with them. We are surprised when a visitor from a colder climate gets very enthusiastic about them. Francisco Zurbaran also lived in citrus country - Seville, in southern Spain. No one can accuse him of not taking his lemons and oranges seriously. They are painted larger than life with a kind of super-realism. You can almost smell the tang of their peel and feel the waxy gloss of the rind. The strong lighting on the three subjects in the foreground and the deep rich darkness in the background make a dramatic contrast. This fruit is practically ``on-stage.''
Originally there was more on this canvas than we see today. X-rays taken of the painting show that Zurbaran changed his mind and painted over some parts. The basket of oranges and the plate of lemons were connected by more lemons, some partially peeled. Changing these, Zurbaran made his painting stronger and clearer.
This is the only signed and dated still life we have by Zurbaran. Most of his paintings are religious - saints and martyrs from the Roman Catholic Church. His religious paintings were very popular in Spain for a while but later in his life the people's tastes changed and fewer and fewer wanted to buy his work. When he couldn't sell enough paintings in Spain anymore he started searching for new markets. In his day, Spanish explorers and colonists were busy in the New World. Citrus trees as well as other goods were exported to the colonies.
Zurbaran saw opportunities in the New World. Sending his paintings on the galleons crossing the Atlantic, he could sell many of his paintings to the new churches being built in Central and South America.
``Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose,'' did not come to the New World right away, but its home today is in southern California, right in the heart of the citrus-growing region. In the Norton Simon Museum where it now hangs, people will stop to gaze at it who would never notice a lemon in the produce aisle of their supermarket. It is a beautiful painting to look at. It also excites the imagination.
When I show this painting to school groups they love to make up stories to go with it. Sometimes it is the story of a knight sent on an impossible quest to find three perfect lemons in the dead of winter. His life will be forfeited if he fails. But he succeeds beyond expectation and wins the hand of the princess and half the kingdom.
Another story came from a student, good at history, who identified the date when this was painted, 1633, as a great age of Spanish exploration and conquest. His story concerned the discovery that lemons keep a long time and can help sailors prevent illness on sea voyages. In this one, Zurbaran's lemons helped Europeans sail all over the globe trading for exotic goods and searching for gold.
As far as we know, Zurbaran didn't intend this painting to be about either of these things. There are probably no hidden meanings in this painting. But can you ever look at an orange or a lemon in the same way again?