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St. Francis Contemplating a Skull

Francisco de Zurbarán, Spanish, 1598–1664
Oil on canvas
Place made
Seville, Spain, Europe
Current Location
On View, Gallery 236
36 x 12 in. (91.4 x 30.5 cm)
framed: 44 1/4 x 20 5/8 x 3 in. (112.4 x 52.4 x 7.6 cm)
Credit Line
Museum Purchase
Public Domain
Object Number
Saint Francis of Assisi was a 13th-century friar and preacher, famous for having had a vision in which he received the wounds of Christ. The artist has reduced his figure to simple geometric solids, their three-dimensionality enhanced by the use of stark lighting. The saint’s downcast gaze and shadowed face remove him from the viewer’s realm, making his contemplation of the skull a compelling model of religious devotion. Francisco de Zurbarán was a master of the single monumental figure, often based on models that he studied from life. Although the painting was originally part of a larger, multi-paneled altarpiece, it works effectively as a single picture.
- still in 1800
Monastery of San Alberto, Seville, Spain [1]

1810 -
Royal Palace of Alcazar, Seville, Spain, (accession?) no. 271[2]

- 1852
Maréchal Nicolas-Jean-de-Dieu Soult (1769-1851), Paris, France [3]

1852/05/19 -
Sarchi and Richard Collection, purchased at auction "Catalogue Raisonné des tableaux de la Galerie de feu M. le Maréchal-Général Soult" at L'Anglenne Galerie Lebrun, Paris, France, May 19-22, 1852, lot no. 38 [4]

by 1938 - 1941
Arnold Seligmann, Rey & Co., Inc., New York, NY, USA [5]

1941 -
Saint Louis Art Museum, purchased from Arnold Seligmann, Rey & Co., Inc. [6]

[1] This painting was probably grouped with three other paintings by Zurbarán on the altar piece of the Carmelite church of San Alberto, Seville. A number of altars were erected between 1629 and 1633. Several authors writing on this artist throughout the 18th century confirmed seeing an altar by Zurbarán in Seville – Palomino (1724), Ponz (1780), and Ceán Bermúdez (1800) [Soria, Martin. "The paintings of Zurbarán". London: Phaidon Press, 1953, cat. no. 44].

[2] According to the 2009 catalog raisonne by Odile Delenda, this painting was in the Alcazar in 1810 where its accession number was 271. [Delenda, Odile. "Francisco de Zurbaran, 1598 - 1664: catalogo razonada y critico." Madrid: Fundacio´n Arte Hispa´nico, 2009, cat. no. 71].

[3] Maréchal Soult, Duke of Dalmatia, as a French soldier, formed a large collection of Spanish pictures, mainly through looting during the 1808 French campaign in Spain. This painting was most likely taken from the Carmelite church of San Alberto, Seville. A sale of Soult's collection, in which this painting was included, took place in Paris in 1852 after Soult's death ["Catalogue Raisonné des tableaux de la Galerie de feu M. le Maréchal-Général Soult," Galerie Lebrun, Paris, 1852, lot no. 38].

The reverse of the painting bears information identifying its former owner. An inscription on the stretcher reads: "Provenant de la… du Marechal Soult," and includes a red seal depicting a quartered coat of arms with mantling and ducal cap surmounted by a seven-branched ornament.

[4] An annotated copy of the sale catalog gives "Richard and Sarchi" as the buyers. The latter is Philip Sarchi; Richard might be the collector Théodore Richard, active in the mid 19th century [National Gallery of Art Provenance Database; Getty Provenance Index]. It must be noted that the dealer invoice dated March 10, 1941, indicates that the painting belonged to King Philippe of France (1773-1850) at some point after Soult's ownership [SLAM document files]. However, it seems implausible that King Philippe owned the painting at this time given that his death date is two years before Richard and Sarchi even purchased the painting.

[5] Seligmann's invoice (see note [4]) includes a transcribed statement dated December 14, 1938 by the scholar August L. Mayer, who attributed the work to Zurbarán. This indicates that the picture most likely was with Seligmann at that time.

[6] Minutes of the Administrative Board of Control of the City Art Museum, April 3, 1941.
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