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: The Holy Family by Luis Tristan


Jonathan Brown



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In 1974, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts acquired an important painting of the Holy Family (figure 1) by a fascinating but little-known Spanish artist, Luis Tristán.1 Tristán's name will probably not be generally familiar in this country, principally because the Minneapolis painting is virtually the only work by him in an American museum. It is thus all the more fortunate that the Holy Family is one of his best and most famous pictures. Moreover, the painting is also a prime example of a complex and crucial moment for the evolution of Spanish Baroque painting, which it helps us to understand.The biographical facts of Tristán's life are scanty and can be quickly told.2 His date of birth is not recorded, but must have been around 1584.3 Although he would spend most of his short life in Toledo (he lived to be only about thirty-eight), he appears to have been born outside the city, perhaps in a nearby town. He is documented in Toledo in 1603 as an apprentice of El Greco, with whom he remained until 1606. Tristán's life between 1607-12 is partially a mystery. A fellow seventeenth-century painter, Jusepe Martínez, claimed that Tristán had gone to Italy with another important Spanish artist, Jusepe de Ribera.4 This supposed Italian trip, which was regarded skeptically by many writers, has recently been confirmed, although its duration and itinerary are still uncertain.5 The connection with Ribera is possible but again unproved. Ribera probably left Valencia for Italy around 1610, too late to have been Tristán's traveling companion if Tristán departed immediately after having finished his apprenticeship with El Greco. However, the two artists could have become acquainted while they were abroad.By 1613, the date of the Minneapolis Holy Family, Tristán was back in Toledo, where he spent the next and last decade of his life. Between 1613 and 1624, he enjoyed considerable success as an artist, executing important commissions for private patrons, religious orders, and churches. He was less fortunate in managing the fruits of his labors, leaving many more creditors than debtors when he died in December 1624.Tristán's art is more complicated than his biography. His lifespan coincided with an intricate moment in the history of Spanish art, which his work reflects with considerable fidelity. Indeed, Tristán was like a piece of blotting paper, soaking up impressions of different strength and color from several sources. The resultant confusion of his image is confirmed in the writings on the artist. In the nineteenth century, he was characterized as a follower of El Greco.6 Then, in the twentieth century, as the importance of Caravaggio came to be understood, Tristán was placed amongst the followers of the great Italian painter.7 In 1927, Robert Longhi drew attention to similarities in the work of Tristán and that of Orazio Borgianni, an Italian painter who worked briefly in Spain and later in his life practiced a modified version of Caravaggism.8 More recent scholarship has also pointed to Tristán's affinities with the so-called reform mannerists, artists from central Italy who began the slow evolution towards the less affected painting style of the seventeenth century.9 A sizeable group of these artists worked on the decoration of El Escorial in the 1570s and 1580s and played an important role in the genesis of early Spanish Baroque painting. And, finally, some writers of the last few years have pointed to the presence of Northern elements in Tristán's style.10Improbable though it may seem, all of these hypotheses are plausible to some degree, because all these sources of influence played a part in the genesis of Spanish painting around the turn of the sixteenth century. Tristán appeared on the scene at the moment when Spanish painters were making the first experiments with a style that would eventually result in the distinctive and highly original form of naturalism exemplified in the early work of Velázquez and Tristán. Like his contemporaries, Tristán sought to dominate and harmonize the various and occasionally conflicting tendencies that surrounded him.11 When seen against this background, Tristán's art becomes more understandable.Around 1570, Philip II began to plan the pictorial adornment of the great building complex he had created at El Escorial. Philip wanted to have extensive fresco decorations, for which he had to import Italian artists, there being no Spaniards sufficiently well versed in the technique. The Italians came in two waves. The first group, which arrived in the late 1560s, included Romulo Cincinnato, Niccolo Granello, and Francesco da Urbino. The second group, which arrived in the mid-1580s, was far more important and included Federico Zuccaro, Luca Cambiaso, Pellegrino Tibaldi, and Bartolomé Carducho. These artists practiced a style sometimes referred to as "reform" mannerism. In effect, they had leavened the extremely artificial, gratuitously complex style of mid-sixteenth-century central Italian mannerism with a healthy dose of the more normative and chromatically varied art of Venice. The results of their labors at El Escorial were underestimated for a long time, perhaps because the general level of quality of their output is not outstanding. Yet it is now clear that their efforts laid the foundation for the coming generation of Spanish painters.12 The simplicity and clarity of their compositions, their occasional use of dramatic light effects derived from Venetian artists, and their keen eye for the mundane details of reality were inspiring to the Spanish painters who worked with and after them. Given the proximity of El Escorial to Toledo (a distance of about eighty miles), painters from Toledo were often attracted to the monastery to work as assistants and collaborators in the decoration. They included Blas de Prado (ca. 1545-1599) and Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627), both of whom played a role in the development of Spanish naturalism and whose work was easily available to Tristán, as were the paintings at El Escorial itself.Of course it should also be remembered that Tristán worked in the studio of one of the greatest painters in the Venetian tradition, El Greco. But the master's influence on his disciple was not so strong as might be expected. In his later years, El Greco developed a style that was so original and personal as to discourage imitation. Those who followed him closely condemned their art to unfavorable comparison. Only on rare occasions did Tristán emulate El Greco's style. Nevertheless, there are clear signs that he absorbed certain fundamental lessons from his master. His dramatic use of light, although never as fractured or brilliant, owes something to El Greco's example, as does his fondness for elongated figure proportions and a certain audacity with color, which again fall well short of El Greco's unique genius for original color combinations.Tristán, then, used the art of an older generation to form the substratum of his own style. But he was equally alive to the most recent developments in painting, particularly those in Italy. The relationship of Tristán, who sometimes worked in a naturalist mode, to Caravaggio and his followers at first seems to be obvious, but it is really quite puzzling. Before the confirmation of his Italian sojourn, scholars who perceived the impact of Caravaggio on Tristán accounted for the influence principally by pointing to the work of Orazio Borgianni, an Italian follower of Caravaggio who was active in Spain. But too much has been made of the similarity of Tristán's work to Borgianni's.13 The points of contact are fundamentally superficial and result from the fact that the two artists independently differed from Caravaggio in some of the same ways. Now that Tristán is known to have been in Italy, there is no longer a need to look for the source of his supposed Caravaggism among the paintings of an Italian who worked in central Spain. Furthermore, the most recent writers have tended to deny any suggestion at all of a link between Tristán and Caravaggio and his followers, and on the whole they seem to be right. Tristán must have been acquainted with paintings in this style, but they only occasionally affected him. The Minneapolis Holy Family is one instance, as is the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in the church of the Carmelitas Descalzos in Toledo. But, like any uncertain thing, Caravaggism waxes and wanes in Tristán's art according to mood and circumstance. There is little of Tristán's Caravaggism that cannot be found where Caravaggio himself nourished his early art—in the work of the preceding generations of "reform" mannerists and certain Venetian painters.This is not to say that the trip to Italy left no mark on Tristán as an artist. It is probable that he found kindred spirits in Rome, but not among the Italians. More to his liking would have been the style of Flemish and Dutch painters working in Rome, some of whom had been invigorated by Caravaggio's example.14 In the early seventeenth century, a number of fine Northern Caravaggisti were living in Rome, including Gerrit van Honthorst, Abraham Janssen and Hendrick Terbrugghen. Their art, like Tristán's, is a hybrid strain in which certain Italianate features have been grafted onto non-Italian roots. The principal difference between the Northerners and their Italian contemporaries lies in their conception of the human form, which is much less idealized. Next to their earthy, particularized, gaudily-dressed figures, those of Caravaggio appear as decorous and correct. Although Tristán's style of drawing the human figure is yet again different, it is in its way equally un-classical and would have made him more receptive to the work of his Northern colleagues. His affinity for Northern art shows up notably in the altarpiece for the parish church at Yepes, near Toledo, executed in 1616. The prosaic still life details in the Adoration of the Shepherds and the flamboyant regalia of the kings in the Adoration of the Magi indicate sources in Northern art.Up to this point, Tristán must seem like a weak-willed painter who was blown to and from like a feather by the changing winds of artistic fashion. Yet this is not quite the truth. Virtually all of his contemporaries in Spain reacted as he did to this moment of flux and experimentation and followed the lead of more established and prestigious artists as they groped toward a personal form of expression. Tristán's quest was cut short by premature death before he was able to resolve these conflicts—hence the eclectic and markedly uneven character of his work. It is also clear that he lacked the final measure of talent, insight, and self-confidence to navigate safely through the artistic crosscurrents of his age, as his younger contemporary, Velázquez, was able to do.15 Yet, on occasion, he was capable of synthesizing the diverse sources of inspiration and sealing them with his personal stamp. The paintings he produced in these moments may fairly be called masterpieces. The Minneapolis Holy Family is unquestionably one of these works and thus allows us to see Tristán's strengths as few of his paintings do.The Holy Family has long been considered to be one of the paintings by Tristán most influenced by Caravaggio and, up to a point, this is true. The picture was executed in 1613, possibly just after Tristán's return from Italy, when the experience of having seen the latest developments in Italian art was still fresh in mind. But a close analysis of the Holy Family compels us to recognize that the common ground of the two artists is not infinitely extensive. The closest point of contact can be found in the lighting effects. The use of a strong, clear, focused light that washes the figures but curiously fails to penetrate the background is an exaggeration of a favorite device of Caravaggio. The resultant contrast between bright light and dark shadow imparts a sense of corporeality to the figures, making them seem almost palpable. The simple, balanced composition, which is roughly a triangle, also bespeaks an Italian source, although not necessarily in Caravaggio, who himself tended to compose along classical lines. These two qualities impart a sense of serene monumentality that Tristán seldom achieved in his later works as the memory of Italy dimmed in his thoughts.But whatever the debts to Italian sources, the essence of the style of the Holy Family is distinctly Hispanic. This is particularly apparent in the figure types. Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child almost seem to be portraits of particular individuals. They lack the modicum of idealization that would make it clear that they are artistic inventions. Here we confront what appear to be portrayals of real persons. The Christ Child has small pouches of flesh under his eyes and surprisingly well-formed features. The Virgin Mary, with heavy-lidded eyes, small mouth and prominent nose, is an equally distinctive human being. And St. Joseph is portrayed as a youthful, attractive man with fine features (figure 2). The careful differentiation and individualization effectively reduce the distance between the divinities and the viewer by making the Holy Family seem less abstract and remote. The result is consistent with the direct, personal form of Catholicism that prevailed in seventeenth-century Spain.Small touches amplify the sensation of reality. There is the low table, covered with an Oriental carpet which is painted with dazzling fidelity and attention to detail and which may well have been suggested by the study of Northern painting. The straw basket from which Mary gracefully plucks a linen cloth (figure 3) is equally tangible and seems to predict a motif that occurs over and over again in paintings by Zurbarán. The rich, warm colors also contribute to the effect of naturalism. Joseph wears a cloak of earthy brown, folded into deep, dark ridges. His skin is a tannish, sunburnt color that contrasts with the pinkish flesh tones of the Virgin and Child and suggests a man who lives outdoors. The Virgin has on a cherry-red gown and wears a dark greenish-blue mantle over her shoulders. These colors, too, are clear and direct. There are also subtler chromatic touches, such as the acid-green cloth that surrounds the Christ Child and the purple and dark orange cloths that lie at the right on the low bench.The impact of the painting cannot be fully assessed until the subject matter is considered. The Holy Family is, of course, one of the most common themes of Christian art, but it received new vigor in the seventeenth century when it became a popular devotional image.16 To this extent, Tristán's Holy Family follows the taste of the time. But the motif of the nursing mother, or Virgen de la leche as it is called in Spain, was distinctly out of phase with the prevailing theological thought.17 In 1563, the Council of Trent had sought to restrict "indecent" representations of the divinities, putting an end to a theme that had enjoyed great diffusion in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, namely, the Virgin nursing the Christ Child. Hence, the subject of the Holy Family seems to possess the same characteristic blend of old and new fashions that marks its style. But Tristán has risen above his iconographical sources, just as he did above his stylistic sources, to create an image that is his own. The twisting posture of the Christ Child and his still-firm grasp of his mother's breast suggest that the act of nourishment has just been interrupted. The resultant impression of spontaneity enlivens the composition and, moreover, incorporates the viewer into the scene as the source of the interruption. Through this device, Tristán bridges the worlds of art and reality and brings the divinities into unexpectedly closely contact with mankind. Hence the underlying logic of the naturalist style becomes manifest. The gods appear almost as if mortal, thus fulfilling a cardinal Christian belief and making them accessible to those whose mortality is not in doubt. In this unique moment of inspiration, Tristán showed the way that would soon be followed by painters greater than himself.Author's Note:I gratefully acknowledge the valuable assistance of Marion Hirschler, Research Consultant for The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in undertaking the research for this article.Jonathan Brown is director and associate professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. A specialist on Spanish sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art, he is the author of Jusepe de Ribera: Prints and Drawings (1973), Zurbarán (1974), Murillo and His Drawings (1976, and numerous journal articles.Endnotes
  1. Luis Tristán
    Spanish, 1586-1640
    Holy Family, 1613
    Oil on canvas
    56 x 43 in.
    Signed and dated, lower left: LUYS TRISTAN. PINS. D. 1613
    The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 74.2Provenance: Queen María Cristina (sale, Paris, April 16-22, 1879, no. 37); Contini Bonacossi Collection, Florence; Stanley Moss and Co., New York; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.References: George Kubler and Martin Soria, Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions, 1500-1800 (Baltimore, 1959), p. 224, pl. 117B; Roberto Longhi, "Un San Tommaso del Velázques e le congiunture italo-spagnole tra il cinque ed il seicento" Vita Artistica, 2 (1927), p. 9; Spanish translation in Anales y Boletín de los Museos de Arte de Barcelona (1951), reprinted in Complete Works of R. Longhi; August L. Mayer, "Obras de arte españolas en el extranjero," Revista española de art," 1 (1932), pp. 91-92; M. S. Soria, "Velázquez and Tristán," in Varia Velazqueña (Madrid, 1960), vol. 1, p. 458, vol. 2, pl. 182: A. E. Pérez Sánchez, Borgianni, Cavarozzi y Nardi en España (Madrid: Instituto Diego Velázquez, 1964); D. Angulo Iñiguez and A. E. Pérez Sánchez, Historia de la Pintura Española: Escuela toledana de la primera mitad del siglo XVII (Madrid: Instituto Diego Velázquez, 1972), pp. 126-127, 153-154, fig. 80; Roberto Longhi and August L. Mayer, Spanish Paintings in the Contini Bonacossi Collection; Sabine Jacob, "Luis Tristán" (Ph.D. dissertation, Freiburg, 1961), pp. 51, 95, no. 50.
  2. The fundamental documentation of Tristán's life was published by Francisco de Borje de San Román, Notícías nuevas para la biografía del pinto Luis Tristán (Toledo, 1924). The most detailed study of his work is found in Diego Angulo Iñiguez and Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez, Historia de la pintura española: Escuela toledana de la primera mitad del siglo XVII (Madrid, 1972), pp. 111-199 (hereafter cited as Angulo Iñiguez and Pérez Sánchez, Escuela toledana).
  3. This date is based on the premise that Tristán was about twelve years old when he entered El Greco's workshop as an apprentice. There was no set age to begin an apprenticeship in seventeenth-century Spain. However, it was usual for a boy to enter a workshop at any time between the ages of ten and twelve (see Juan A. Gaya Nuño, "Vida del pinto español en el siglo de oro," Boletín de la Sociedad Española de Excursiones, 55 [1951], pp. 81-88).
  4. Jusepe Martínez, Discursos practicables del noblísimo arte de la pintura, ed. Valentín Carderera y Solano (Madrid, 1866), p. 185.
  5. The evidence for the Italian journey is found in a copy of Vasari's Lives, now in the collection of Xavier de Salas, Madrid, which was owned successively by El Greco and Tristán. Both artists made marginal notes that confirm their firsthand knowledge of painting in Italy. (El Greco, of course, is known to have spent considerable time there.) See Xavier de Salas, "Un exemplaire des 'Vies' de Vasari annot par El Greco," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 69 (1967), pp. 176-180.
  6. See, for example, William Stirling-Maxwell, Annals of the Artists of Spain (London, 1891), vol. 2, pp. 514-515.
  7. For this point of view, see August L. Mayer, "Obras de arte españolas en el extranjero," Revista Española de Arte, 1 (1932), p. 91.
  8. Roberto Longhi, "Un San Tommaso di Velázquez e le congiunture italo-spagnole tra il cinque e il seicento," Vita artistica, 2 (1927), pp. 4-11; Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez, Borgianni, Cavarozzi y Nardi en Espana (Madrid, 1964), p. 19, also emphasizes the importance of Borgianni for Tristán.
  9. See Sabine Jacob, "Florentinische Elemente in der spanischen Malerei des frühen 17. Jahrhunderts," Mitteilungen des Kunst-historischen Instituts in Florenz, 13 (1967-68), pp. 114-164.
  10. Angulo Iñiguez and Pérez Sánchez, Escuela toledana, and Martin Soria, "Velázquez and Tristán," in Varia Velazqueña (Madrid, 1960), Vol. I, p. 458, note 8.
  11. For the bibliography on this question, see Jonathan Brown, review of Historia de la pintura española: Escuela madrileía del primer tercio del siglo XVII by Diego Angulo Iñiguez and Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez, Art Bulletin, 54 (1972), pp. 97-99.
  12. For a general discussion of the significance of the Italian painters at El Escorial, see Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez, "Sobre los pintores de El Escorial," Goya, nos. 56-57 (1963), pp. 148-153.
  13. This opinion is also expressed by Sabine Jacob, "Ein Selbtsbildniss von Tristán," Kunstgeschichtliche Studien fur Kurt Bauch (Deutsche Kunstverlag, 1967), p. 187, note 7.
  14. For the community of Flemish and Dutch artists in Rome, see G. J. Hoogewerff, De Bentvueghels (s'Gravenhage, 1947), and Via Margutta, centro di vita artistica (Rome, 1953).
  15. In 1724, Antonio Palomino observed that Tristán was an important influence on the young Velázquez (El Parnaso español pintoresco laureado [Madrid, 1947], p. 894). This casual remark has gained considerable, but unjustified, credence. (See Martin Soria, "Velázquez and Tristán," for a detailed statement of the case for the relationship.) The occasional similarities between the two artists (and the figure of St. Joseph in the Minneapolis Holy Family is one of the most striking examples) are the result of the fact that both of them drew upon the sources just described above. The roughhewn naturalism of Tristán and the early Velázquez should be regarded as a common language that was used by several important Spanish artists in the first quarter of the seventeenth century.
  16. See Emile Male, L'art religieux après le Concile de Trente (Paris, 1932), pp. 310-312.
  17. See Luis Tramoyeres Blasco, "La Virgen de la Leche en el arte," Museum, 3 (1913), pp. 79-118, for the history of this image.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Luis Tristán
    Spanish (1586-1640)
    Holy Family, 1613
    Oil on canvas
    56 x 43 in.
    William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 74.2
  2. Detail of St. Joseph in the Holy Family
  3. Detail of the straw basket and Virgin's hand in the Holy Family.
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Source: Jonathan Brown, "The Holy Family by Luis Tristan," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 62 (1975): 28-34.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009